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World Oral Literature Series 

Oral Literature in Africa 

Ruth Finnegan 




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The praise singer Mqhyai, distinguished Xhosa imbongi, in traditional garb, 
with staff (courtesy Jeff Opland). 

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World Oral Literature Series: Volume 1 


Ruth Finnegan 



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Publishers ^J^- 

Open Book Publishers CIC Ltd., 

40 Devonshire Road, Cambridge, CB1 2BL, United Kingdom 

© 2012 Ruth Finnegan. Forward © 2012 Mark Turin. 

This book is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported 

license (CC-BY 3.0), details available at 



This license allows you to share, copy, distribute and transmit the work; to 
adapt the work and to make commercial use of the work. The work must be 
attributed to the respective authors (but not in any way that suggests that 
they endorse you or your use of the work). 

This is the first volume in the World Oral Literature Series, published in vg} 

association with the World Oral Literature Project. 

World Oral Literature Series: Volume 1. 
ISSN: 2050-7933 

Digital material and resources associated with this volume are hosted by 
the World Oral Literature Project ( 
rfinneganOOl) and Open Book Publishers (http://www.openbookpublishers. 
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ISBN Hardback: 978-1-906924-71-3 

ISBN Paperback: 978-1-906924-70-6 

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Cover image: West African epic singer with lyre, probably Mandingo or 
Fula (courtesy Anne-Marie Dauphin and Jean Derive). 

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To all my teachers 

and to all those students fe. 

who may find this work of some use in their 

study of the oral literatures of Africa 

and of the world 


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Ruth Finnegan is a Visiting Research Professor and Emeritus Professor in the 
Faculty of Social Sciences at the Open University. Her particular interests are in 
the anthropology/sociology of artistic activity communication, and performance; 
debates relating to literacy 'orality' and multimodality; and amateur and other 
'hidden' activities. She has published widely on aspects of communication 
and expression, especially oral performance, literacy, and music-making. Her 
publications include Limba Stories and Story-Telling (1967, 1981); Oral Poetry (1977; 
2nd edn 1992); Information Technology: Social Issues (joint ed., 1987); Literacy and 
Orality: Studies in the Technology of Communication (1988); Oral Traditions and the Verbal 
Arts (1992); Communicating: The Multiple Modes of Human Interconnection (2002); and 
The Oral and Beyond: Doing Things with Words in Africa (2007). Her most recent book, 
Why Do We Quote? The Culture and History of Quotation was published in 2011, and, 
to appear around 2013, an edited study of dreaming and telepathy. 

Ruth Finnegan was elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 1996 and an 
Honorary Fellow of Somerville College Oxford in 1997; she was awarded an OBE 
for services to Social Sciences in 2000. Under the pen name of Catherine Farrar she 
has also published the first two parts of fantasy-fictional 'The Self Quartet', namely 
The Little Angel and the Three Wisdoms and Three Ways of Loving; also a collection of 
short stories, The Wild Thorn Rose. She can be reached at: 

Mark Turin is a linguist and anthropologist. Before joining the South Asian Studies 
Council at Yale, he was a Research Associate at the Museum of Archaeology and 
Anthropology at the University of Cambridge . He has also held research appointments 
at Cornell and Leipzig universities, and the Namgyal Institute of Tibetology in 
Sikkim, India. From 2007 to 2008, he served as Chief of Translation and Interpretation 
at the United Nations Mission in Nepal (UNMIN). Mark Turin is now the director 
of both the World Oral Literature Project (Cambridge and Yale) — an urgent global 
initiative to document and make accessible endangered oral literatures before 
they disappear without record — and the Digital Himalaya Project, a platform to 
make multi-media resources from the Himalayan region widely available online. 
He writes and teaches on ethnolinguistics, visual anthropology, digital archives 
and field work methodology at the Universities of Cambridge and Yale. His publications 
include Nepali-Tliaini-English Dictionary (2004); Grounding Knowledge/Walking Land: 
Archaeological Research and Ethno-historical Identity in Central Nepal (joint, 2009) and 
A Grammar of Thangmi with an Ethnolinguistic Introduction to the Speakers and their 
Culture (2012). He can be reached at: 


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List of illustrations xiii 

Foreword by Mark Turin xvii 

Preface to the First Edition xxiii 

Preface to the Second Edition xxv 

Acknowledgments xxxv 

Acknowledgments: Addendum 2012 xxxix 

Abbreviations xli 

Notes on Sources and References xliii 


1. The 'oral' nature of African unwritten literature 3 

The significance of performance in actualization, transmission, 
and composition. Audience and occasion. Implications for the study 
of oral literature. Oral art as literature. 

2. The perception of African oral literature 29 

Nineteenth-century approaches and collections. Speculations and 
neglect in the twentieth century. Recent trends in African 
studies and the revival of interest in oral literature. 

3. The social, linguistic, and literary background 51 
Social and literary background. The linguistic basis — the example 

of Bantu. Some literary tools. Presentation of the material. 
The literary complexity of African cultures. 


4. Poetry and patronage 83 

Variations in the poet's position. Court poets. Religious patronage. 
Free-lance and wandering poets. Part-time poets. A note on 'epic'. 

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x Oral Literature in Africa 

5. Panegyric 111 
Introductory: nature and distribution; composers and reciters; 

occasions. Southern Bantu praise poetry: form and style; occasions 
and delivery; traditional and contemporary significance. 

6. Elegiac poetry 145 

General and introductory. Akan funeral dirges: content and themes; 
structure, style, and delivery; occasions and functions; the dirge 
as literature. 

7. Religious poetry 165 
Introductory. Didactic and narrative religious poetry and the Islamic 
tradition; the Swahili tenzi. Hymns, prayers, and incantations: 

general survey; the Fante Methodist lyric. Mantic poetry: 
Sotho divining praises; odu Ifa (Yoruba). 

8. Special purpose poetry— war, hunting, and work 201 
Military poetry: Nguni; Akan. Hunting poetry: 

Yoruba ijala; Ambo hunters' songs. Work songs. 

9. Lyric 235 
Occasions. Subject-matter. Form. Composition. 

10. Topical and political songs 265 
Topical and local poetry. Songs of political parties 

and movements: Mau Mau hymns; Guinea R.D.A. songs; 
Northern Rhodesian party songs. 

11. Children's songs and rhymes 291 
Lullabies and nursery rhymes. Children's games 

and verses; Southern Sudanese action songs. 


12. Prose narratives I. Problems and theories 307 

Introductory. Evolutionist interpretations. 

Historical-geographical school. Classification and typologies. Structural- 
functional approach. Conclusion. 


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Contents xi 

13. Prose narratives II. Content and form. 327 

What is known to date: content and plot; main characters. 
Types of tales: animal stories; stories about people; 'myths'; 
'legends' and historical narratives. What demands further 
study: occasions; role of narrators; purpose and function; 
literary conventions; performance; originality and 
authorship. Conclusion. 

14. Proverbs 379 
The significance and concept of the proverb. Form and style. 

Content. Occasions and functions. Specific examples: Jabo; 
Zulu; Azande. Conclusion. 

15. Riddles 413 
Riddles and related forms. Style and content. Occasions and 

uses. Conclusion. 

16. Oratory, formal speaking, and other stylized forms 431 
Oratory and rhetoric: Burundi; Limba. Prayers, curses, etc. 

Word play and verbal formulas. Names. 


17. Drum language and literature 467 
Introductory — the principle of drum language. Examples of 

drum literature: announcements and calls; names; proverbs; 
poetry. Conclusion. 

18. Drama 485 
Introductory. Some minor examples: Bushman 'plays'; 

West African puppet shows. Mande comedies. West African masquerades: 
South-Eastern Nigeria; Kalahari. Conclusion. 




INDEX 547 


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Online Resources 

This volume is complemented by original recordings of stories and songs 
from the Limba country (Sierra Leone) which are freely accessible at: 

Ruth Finnegan's Limba collection was recorded during her fieldwork 
in Limba country in northern Sierra Leone, mainly in the remote villages 
of Kakarima and Kamabai. Recorded mostly in 1961, but with some audio 
clips from 1963 and 1964, the collection consists of stories and occasional 

songs on the topics of the beginning of the world, animals and human v^p 

adventures, with some work songs and songs to accompany rituals also 

Performances were regularly enlivened by the dramatic arts of the 
narrator and by active audience participation. Songs in this collection are 
accompanied by the split drum (gong) known as Limba nkali ki, although 
story songs are unaccompanied. The predominant language of the 
recordings is Limba (a west Atlantic language group), with occasional 
words in Krio (Creole), which was rapidly becoming the local lingua franca 
at the time of the recordings. 


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Frontispiece: The praise singer Mqhyai, distinguished Xhosa 
imbongi, in traditional garb with staff (photo 
courtesy Jeff Opland). 

Figure 1. Dancer, West Africa (photo Sandra Bornand). xvi 

Figure 2. The author on fieldwork in Limba country, northern xxii 

Sierras Leone, 1964. 
Figure 3. Nongelini Masithathu Zenani, Xhosa story-teller 4 

creating a dramatic and subtle story (photo Harold 

Figure 4. Mende performer, Sierra Leone, 1982 (photo Donald 8 

Figure 5. Dancers from Oyo, south West Nigeria, 1970 (photo 20 

David Murray). 
Figure 6. 'Jellemen' praise singers and drummers, Sierra 36 

Leone (Alexander Gordon Laing Travels in the 

Timmannee, Kooranko and Soolima Countries, 

Figure 7. 'Evangelist points the way' Illustration by C. J. 48 

Montague. From the Ndebele edition of Bunyan's 

Pilgrim's Progress, 1902. 
Figure 8. Arabic script of a nineteenth-century poem in 53 

Somali (from B. W. Andrzejewski Arabic influence 

in Somali poetry' in Finnegan et al 2011). 
Figure 9. Reading the Bible in up-country Sierra Leone, 1964 55 

(photo David Murray). 


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xiv Oral Literature in Africa 

Figure 10. Tayiru Banbera, West African bard singing his 94 

Epic of Bamana Segu (photo David Conrad). 
Figure 11. Songs for Acholi long-horned cattle, Uganda, 1960 139 

(photo David Murray). 
Figure 12. Funeral songs in the dark in Kamabai, 1961 (photo 147 

Ruth Finnegan). 
Figure 13. Limba girls' initiation, Biriwa, Sierra Leone, 1961 166 

(photo Ruth Finnegan). 
Figure 14. Ceremonial staff of Ogun, Yoruba, probably late 206 

eighteenth century. 
Figure 15. Limba work party spread out in the upland rice 225 

farm, inspired by Karanke's drumming, Kakarima, 

1961 (photo Ruth Finnegan). 
Figure 16. Work company of singing threshers at Sanasi's 226 

farm, Kakarima, 1961 (photo Ruth Finnegan). 
Figure 17. Limba women pounding rice, 1961 (photo Ruth 233 

Figure 18. 'Funky Freddy' of The Jungle Leaders playing hip- 275 

hop political songs that were banned from Radio 

Sierra Leone for their protest lyrics (courtesy 

Karin Barber). 
Figure 19. 'The Most Wonderful Mende Musician with his 288 

Accordion': Mr Salla Koroma, Sierra Leone. 
Figure 20. Radio. Topical and political songs, already strong 290 

in Africa, receive yet further encouragement by 

the ubiquitous presence of local radio (courtesy of 

Morag Grant). 
Figure 21. Sites of many Limba fictional narratives 372 

a) entrance to a hill top Limba village, Kakarima 
1961 (photo Ruth Finnegan); 

b) start of the bush and the bush paths where 
wild beasts and the devils of story roam free, 1961 
(photo Ruth Finnegan). 

Figure 22. 'Great Zimbabwe', the spectacular ruins in the 377 

south of the modern Zimbabwe, 1964 (photo 
David Murray). 


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Figure 23. 'Karanke Dema, master story-teller, drummer, 378 

musician and smith, Kakarima, 1961 (photo Ruth 

Figure 24. Thronged Limba law court, site of oratory, 433 

Kamaba, 1961 (photo Ruth Finnegan). 
Figure 25. Masked Limba dancer and supporters, Kakarima, 486 

1962 (photo Ruth Finnegan). 
Figure 26. Dancing in Freetown— continuing site of oral 505 

literature and its practitioners, 1964 (photo David 

At end: Maps of Africa (© John Hunt). 


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Figure 1. Dancer, West Africa (photo Sandra Bornand). 

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Mark Turin 

The study and appreciation of oral literature is more important than ever 
for understanding the complexity of human cognition. 

For many people around the world— particularly in areas where history 
and traditions are still conveyed more through speech than in writing— the 
transmission of oral literature from one generation to the next lies at the 
heart of culture and memory. Very often, local languages act as vehicles for 
the transmission of unique forms of cultural knowledge. Oral traditions 
that are encoded in these speech forms can become threatened when elders 
die or when livelihoods are disrupted. Such creative works of oral literature 
are increasingly endangered as globalisation and rapid socio-economic 
change exert ever more complex pressures on smaller communities, often 
challenging traditional knowledge practices. 

It was in order to nurture such oral creativity that the World Oral 
Literature Project was established at the University of Cambridge in 2009. 
Affiliated to the University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and 
Anthropology, the project has been co-located at Yale University since 2011. 

As an urgent global initiative to document and disseminate endangered 
oral literatures before they disappear without record, the World Oral 
Literature Project works with researchers and local communities to 
document their own oral narratives, and aspires to become a permanent 
centre for the appreciation and preservation of all forms of oral culture. 
Through the project, our small team provides modest fieldwork grants 
to fund the collecting of oral literature, and we run training workshops 
for grant recipients and other scholars to share their experiences and 
methodologies. Alongside a series of published occasional papers and 
lectures — all available for free from our website — project staff have helped 


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xviii Oral Literature in Africa 

to make over 30 collections of oral literature (from five continents and dating 
from the 1940s to the present) accessible through new media platforms 
online. 1 In supporting the documentation of endangered oral literature and 
by building an online network for cooperation and collaboration across 
the disciplines, the World Oral Literature Project now nurtures a growing 
community of committed scholars and indigenous researchers across the 

The beautifully produced and fully revised new edition of Ruth 
Finnegan's classic Oral Literature in Africa is a perfect illustration of the sort 
of partnership that the World Oral Literature Project has sought to promote. 
In this triangulation between a prominent scholar and her timeless work, 
an innovative and responsive publisher and a small but dynamic research 
project, we have leveraged digital technologies to offer global access to 
scholarly knowledge that had been locked away, out of print for decades, 
for want of a distribution platform. 

Much has changed in the world since Finnegan handed in her original 
typed manuscript to the editors at Clarendon Press in Oxford in 1969. 
The most profound transformation is arguably the penetration of, and 
access to technology. In the decades that followed the publication of her 
instantly celebrated book, computers developed from expensive room-sized 
mainframes exclusively located in centres of research in the Western 
hemisphere, into cheap, portable, consumer devices— almost disposable 
and certainly omnipresent. It seemed paradoxical that with all of the world's 
knowledge just a few keystrokes away, thanks to powerful search engines 
and online repositories of digitised learning, a work of such impact and 
consequence as Oral Literature in Africa could be said to be 'out of print'. 
The World Oral Literature Project embarked on its collaboration with Open 
Book Publishers in order to address this issue, and to ensure that Finnegan's 
monograph be available to a global audience, once and for all. 

Finnegan was patient as we sought the relevant permissions for a new 
edition, and then painstakingly transformed her original publication, 
through a process of scanning and rekeying (assisted and frustrated in 
equal measure by the affordance of optical character recognition) into the 
digital document that it is today. At this point, thanks are due to Claire 
Wheeler and Eleanor Wilkinson, both Research Assistants at the World 
Oral Literature Project in Cambridge, whose care and precision is reflected 

To view our series of occasional papers, lectures and online collections, please visit 


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Foreword xix 

in the edition that you are now reading. In addition, through the online 
Collections Portal maintained by our project, we have given new life to 
Finnegan's audio and visual collection in a manner that was unimaginable 
when she made the original recordings during her fieldwork in the 1960s. The 
digital collection can be explored online at, and 
I encourage you to visit the site to experience for yourself the performative 
power of African oral literature. 2 

In the Preface to the first edition, Finnegan writes that she found to 
her 'surprise that there was no easily accessible work' on oral literature in 
general, a realisation which spurred her on to write the monograph that 
would become Oral Literature in Africa. This re-edition of her work gives 
new meaning to the phrase 'easily accessible'; not only does the author 
demonstrate her clarity of insight through her engaging writing style, but 
this version will be read, consumed and browsed on tablets, smart phones 
and laptops, in trains, planes and buses, and through tools that are as yet 
unnamed and uninvented. 

The impact and effectiveness of digital editions, then, lies in the fact 
that they are inherently more democratic, challenging the hegemony of 
traditional publishers and breaking down distribution models that had 
been erected on regional lines. While the digital divide is a modern reality, 
it is not configured on the basis of former coloniser versus former colonised, 
or West-versus-the-Rest, but primarily located within individual nations, 
both wealthy and poor. Now, for the first time, Oral Literature in Africa 
is available to a digitally literate readership across the world, accessible 
to an audience whose access to traditional print editions published and 
disseminated from Europe remains limited. Digital and mobile access is 
particularly relevant for Africa, where smart phone penetration and cell 
coverage is encouragingly high. 

While it is beyond doubt that technology has transformed access to 
scholarly information and the landscape of academic publishing, questions 
remain about long-term digital preservation and the endurance of web-based 
media. In a world of bits and bytes, what (if anything) can be counted as 
permanent? Is there not something to be said for a traditional printed 
artefact for the inevitable day when all the servers go down? Our partners, 
the Cambridge-based Open Book Publishers, have developed an elegant 
hybrid approach straddling the worlds of web and print: free, global, 

For a video interview with Ruth Finnegan conducted by Alan Macfarlane in January 
2008, please visit <>. 


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xx Oral Literature in Africa 

online access to complete digital editions of all publications alongside high 
quality paperback and hardback editions at reasonable prices, printed 
on demand, and sent anywhere that a package can be delivered. This is 
academic publishing 2.0: connecting a global readership with premium 
knowledge and research of the highest quality, no matter where they are 
and how far away the nearest library is. 

Orality is often, but not always, open. Orality is also public, both in 
its production, display and in its eventual consumption. It is fitting that 
the 'update' of Ruth Finnegan's essentially un-updateable text has been 
digitally reborn, open to all, as relevant today as it was when it was first 
published, and serves as the first volume of our new World Oral Literature 

New Haven, Connecticut, May 2012 


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Figure 2. The author on field work in Limba country, northern Sierra Leone, 


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Ruth Finncgan 

When I first became interested in research into one particular form 
of African oral literature in 1961, I found to my surprise that there was 
no easily accessible work to which I could turn to give me some idea of 
what was known in this field, the various publications available, or the 
controversies and problems that demanded further investigation. In fact, 
I gradually discovered, there was an immense amount in print— but most 
of it was not easy to find, it was not systematic, and there was relatively 
little treatment of contemporary forms. It was true that there was plenty 
of work on written African literature (which has received a lot of publicity 
in recent years) and, of a rather speculative kind, on 'primitive mentality' 
or 'mythopoeic imagination'. But on the oral side or on the actual literary 
products of such minds much less was said. There therefore seemed a place 
for a general work on oral literature in Africa, an introductory survey which 
could sum up the present knowledge of the field and serve as a guide to 
further research. It seemed likely that others too besides myself had felt the 
need to consult an introduction of some kind to this subject. It is hoped that 
the resulting book will be useful not only to those intending to do specific 
research on African oral literature but also to those with a general interest 
either in Africa or in literature generally. 

The aim in presenting the material has been to strike a balance between 
general discussion and actual instances. It has been necessary to include 
rather more detailed descriptions and quotations than might be the case 
with a book on European literatures, as the majority of African examples 
are not readily accessible and too abstract a discussion would give little 
idea of the intricacy and artistic conventions of many of the oral forms. It is 
also an intrinsic part of the book to consider some of the social background 


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xxiv Oral Literature in Africa 

as well as the more purely aesthetic and stylistic features. With African as 
with other literature it is essential to treat both literary and social facets (if 
indeed these two are ultimately distinguishable at all) for a full appreciation, 
a point too often neglected by writers on this subject. This book is based 
only on the more obvious sources and is intended as an introduction, not 
as a comprehensive account. Only some examples are given from a huge 
field and experts in particular areas will be able to point to exceptions and 
omissions. Some of my conclusions too may turn out to be controversial; 
indeed one of my hopes is to stimulate further publications and study. On 
each chapter and each section more research could — and I trust will— take 
the subject very much further. But in spite of these limitations, the general 
purpose of the book will, I hope, be fulfilled— to show that African oral 
literature is, after all, a subject worthy of study and interest, and to provoke 
further research in this fascinating but too often neglected field. 

Ibadan 1968 


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Preface to the Second Edition 
Ruth Finncgan 

Much has changed since the 1970 publication of the first edition of this 
work. Despite the best efforts of the post-colonialists, Africa is no longer 
automatically thought of as the land of colonies. African scholars take their 
place alongside those from other countries, written, oral and broadcast 
forms interact— and are at last seen so naturally to do so, And African arts 
and culture receive their just and overdue worldwide acclaim. Now too 
oral literatures flourish in multi-coloured frames, Oriental, African and 
European, produced and performed in multiple new and old and wondrous 
forms and in their full diversity of settings, with the same vibrancy as in the 
past and their long trajectories into the foreseeable future. 

This new edition is necessary. The first was written in the late 1960s— nearly 
forty years ago— when the subject dearly needed greater visibility as a 
focus for serious scholarly endeavour. Not that little was known of the 
topic. Far to the contrary, as I tried to illustrate in the first edition, there 
was a massive collected corpus of African narratives and prose forms. 
Poetry too, if on a smaller scale appeared in anthologies, learned articles 
and both more-or-less exact translations and romanticised approximations, 
and in scholarly circles there was broad interdisciplinary interest in the 
nature, details and potential of the subject. With newly emerging world 
alignments, newly invigorated universities, and the benefits offered to 
worldwide scholarship by digitisation and the internet, now seems to be 
the time to revisit the work with fresh insights and a modicum of update. 

To put it in context, let me first emphasise how immensely fortunate I 
turned out to be in the time I— fortuitously— chose to embark on that first 
work, mainly carried out between late 1963, the date of my marriage, and 
1968-9, when I handed over my final version to the Clarendon Press in 


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xxvi Oral Literature in Africa 

Oxford. They had lost the first typescript— no 'not lost', I seem to recall 
Peter Sutcliffe, then the front man at the press, as saying in his high Oxford 
tones, 'we don't lose manuscripts here: it will just have been put on a shelf 
with the wrong label'. As far as I know it never did turn up; but in those 
laborious days of typewriting I had kept and could amend the carbon copy. 

As for how it began: after my initial stint of fieldwork I was working 
on my Oxford doctoral dissertation in 1962-3 and longing for some kind 
of overview to set my detailed Limba notes in some perspective. I still 
remember the startling moment, sitting at a wide table in Rhodes House 
in Oxford, when I found that yet another promising sounding title was 
again just a detailed account with little or no wider perspectives. Could the 
long self-motivated course of reading that I had necessarily embarked on 
be turned instead to something of use to others? Could the short seminar 
papers I delivered on the subject build up into something more useful? 
Perhaps when I had completed my reading (as if one could . . . ) and 
gathered it into a larger volume, it might act in some way as a tool perhaps 
even a kind of workbench for the better work of others? That at any rate 
began to forge itself into my ambitious aspiration, a gadfly when the going 
got tough and incentive to dispute the arrogant knowingness of those who 
would yet again circulate their certainties about all African culture. Dare 
I hope that something of that original aim might be achieved both in the 
first edition and this more recent and more meagre offering? 

When I came to read through the original edition again this year I was 
surprised how much was based on my own earlier fieldwork. It underlays 
my approach and interests throughout, as well as my confidence in 
interpreting its miscellaneous and disparate sources. How much I owe to 
those Limba story-tellers amidst the fought-over unhappy northern palms 
of Sierra Leone! But in addition the direct use I made of Limba findings 
in chapters 12 to 16, and in scattered references earlier, certainly adds to 
the volume's authenticity. All the inputs there might well have grown to 
full books in themselves (as the narrative section had, in Finnegan 1967) — 
especially, perhaps, the discussion of oratory. Better, I persuaded myself, to 
use them for a volume that would help and incite others (would that the 
same, I told myself, had been done with the many specialist ethnographies 
destined to languish on the shelves of well-endowed university libraries 
rather than adding to the wealth of collaborative human knowledge). 
Perhaps more important, that deep experience of personal fieldwork, never 
forgotten, was what informed and provoked the emphasis on performance 


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Preface to the Second Edition xxvii 

throughout— in many eyes among one of the volume's more original 
contributions — and now developed in so many eye-opening and startling 
contributions across the world. 1 

The background to the book antedates its overt beginning. But I now 
see it goes back further still, drawing its inspiration from that bliss- 
laden initiation into the audio and visual— the oral— qualities of ancient 
classical literatures, referred to with some justice in the opening chapter of 
this book — a key one as far as concerns my own approach and one that still 
frames my thinking. And before that too was my Ulster upbringing with its 
sensitivity to the artistries of language, my mother's stories and my father's 
shy Ulster wit. 

But to return to the context of my more immediate work on the volume: 
I was, as I have said, greatly fortunate in my timing. In 1964 the invaluable 
Doke collection of works on southern African languages and cultures, 
especially, with C. M. Doke's specialism, on Bantu, had just been acquired 
by the University College of Rhodesia and Nyasaland in Salisbury, where 
I was then attached. It was due, I believe, to the good offices of George 
Fortune, Shona expert and close friend of Doke's. The library generously 
allowed me unlimited access, even before cataloguing, and some of my 
most valuable data and insights came from there (I think especially of 
S. M. Mofokeng's sadly unpublished dissertations and much material by 
Doke himself, some also unpublished, the inspiration and basis of the 
linguistic account in my Chapter 3). When my husband and I moved to 
the great University of Ibadan in January 1965, complete with unborn 
child, we discovered not only a bountiful university library but its then 
unparalleled Africana collection on its airy top floor— now alas no more 
(such is progress)— with its own unassuming and ever-helpful librarian. 
This was a wonderful hunting ground. Looking back, I now feel that with 
these resources of southern and western Africa, the book almost wrote 
itself. In no other way can I account for its expeditious completion. 

I was fortunate too— we all were — in the timing of its publication. This 
was the period when many African countries were emerging out of what 
was thought of as the colonial yoke and grip of Eurocentric education 

Such as Barber and Farias 1989, Bauman 1977, 1992, 2012, Bauman and Sherzer 1974-1989, 
Baumgardt and Bornand 2009a, 2009b, Ben-Amos and Goldstein 1975, Degh 1995, 
Drewal 1991, Foley 2002, Hanks 1996, Harding 2002, Honko 2000, Hughes-Freeland 1998, 
Hymes 1996, Mannheim and Tedlock 1995, Okpewho 1992, Paredes and Bauman 1972, 
Schechner 2002, Scheub 1977, Tedlock 1983. 


Oral Literature in Africa.indd 27 (G& 8/28/12 12:58 PM 


xxviii Oral Literature in Africa 

to found their own universities, create departments of African studies, 
and forge national cultural identities. 'Folklore' and the naive primitive 
offerings of communal tribal tradition, however glamorised, were, at least 
in anglophone circles, no longer to be enough. A volume purporting to 
offer an account of literature — that dear term so heralded in European 
culture — could afford a more trusty route to national esteem. What is more, 
it could be deployed as a textbook too, with many estimable courses and 
projects following on from it. Perhaps it is no surprise after all that the 
book remained in print for over thirty years. Happy was I— and I still feel 
blessed— to have played some small part in such a cultural explosion. 

It must have been hugely time-consuming completing the book in little 
more than five years, with all its multiplicity of footnotes and references 
(too many, I came to feel, as I ploughed through the OCR version to make 
it computer-readable). But I was then under the influence of the Oxford 
Classics and 'Greats' tradition, with the obligation that even the tiniest 
point should have its citation and reference. I was determined then, and 
still I suppose am now, that the documentation of African cultural products 
should be as thorough and scrupulous as that for the great classical 
traditions. Nor, even if noone now reads the footnotes, can I think I was 
wrong. The Clarendon Press editors worried over the book's length. Surely 
by the end the reader would know only too well what I wanted to say 
(typical of that time, we were later reconciled over an extended lunch in 
north Oxford: I was in no way unwilling, I fancy, over the offered whitebait). 

Nonetheless, or quite likely because of this deep engagement in my 
subject, I recall those years as among the happiest of my life. Hugely busy 
preparing first lectures for multiple weekly hours of teaching; combing 
the libraries for works pertinent to African oral literature, often at first 
apparently irrelevant; climbing high ladders, pregnant, to top shelves in 
the beautiful breezy library to re-check references, usually to the alarm of 
library staff (when I remarked in my 1970 Preface that I had seen most of the 
works I referred to I was lucky enough to be speaking the truth); learning 
a little about teaching (though scarcely fully recognised till I reached the 
Open University some time later); learning from my mature students (one 
of whose undergraduate essays on Yoruba names is drawn on in this book, 
Omijeh 1966); and spending much of the summers exploring the further 
reaches of the lovely Bodleian library in Oxford, the university's Institute 
of Social Anthropology in its memory-filled Keble Road building, and 
the University of London's great School of Oriental and African Studies 


Oral Literature in Africa.indd 28 (G& 8/28/12 12:58 PM 


Preface to the Second Edition xxix 

Library then dispersed throughout London. I think as well of my mother's 
constantly ungrudging welcome to our growing family; and perhaps best 
of all the birth of our three lovely daughters, two of them in the thriving 
thronged Ibadan University Hospital. I remember too leaping with 
excitement, morning sickness-stricken as I was, to pace the air-conditioned 
coolness of our airy upstairs study as I worked on the chapter on proverbs — 
only too obvious now and grounded in others' insights not my own, but to 
me a revelation that has shaped much of my later work. 

This edition has been fully revised— in the sense, that is, that I have 
checked all through and reflected on each page, corrected a number of minor 
errors and infelicities, and re-ordered the references into a more modern 
(though not fully contemporary) format. There is no way, however, that the 
volume, as a whole, could be 'updated'. The terminology and outlook are 
inescapably those of the late 1960s and, though a few expressions now offend 
me enough to demand changing, the vocabulary may well strike a modern 
reader as perhaps over-dominated by that agentless passive voice of the 
period, generalisation unfounded in evidence and, most of all, contaminated 
by gender, age, and even, surprisingly, racial discriminatory expression 
(though to tell the truth there was in fact less of that than I had expected: is 
there perhaps something in the careful study of African oral literature that 
somehow guards us from such blindnesses?). More important, a world— 
nearly two generations— of research and thought have intervened between 
1969 and 2011. I have tried to sum up some of the main tendencies of this 
work, and my reflections on it, in earlier publications (Finnegan 2007, 2010a, 
b) and a brief glimpse of the iceberg's tip is provided here in the footnotes, 
further expanded in the Integrated References at the end of the volume. But 
the contributions are legion, and true researchers can have the pleasure of 
scrutinising through a lifetime's study 2 

2 To mention just some of the more general publications and surveys (the specialised 
monographs are legion): Abrahams 1983, Andrzejweski et al. 1985, Appiah and Gates 
2005, Barber 1995, 1997a, b, 2006, 2007, Barber and Farias 1989, Barber et al. 1997, 1999, 
Baumgardt 2002, Baumgardt and Bounfour 2000, Baumgardt and Derive 2008, Belcher 
1999, Belmont and Calame-Griaule 1998, Ben-Amos 1983, Breitinger 1994, Brown 1999, 
Conteh-Morgan and Olanyan 1999, Coulon and Gamier, 2011, Dauphin-Tinturier A-M. 
and Derive 2005, Derive 2002, Diagne 2005, Ezeigbo and Gunner 1991, Fardon and 
Furniss 2000, Fedry, J., 2010, Finnegan 2010c, Furniss and Gunner 1995, Gerard 1981, 
1990, 1996, Gorog-Karady 1981, 1982, 1984, 1992, Gunner 1994, Hale 1998, Harding 2002, 
Haring 1994, Irele and Gikandi 2004, Johnson et al. 1997, Jones et al. 1992, Kaschula 
2001, Kawada 1998, Kesteloot 1993, 2004, Kesteloot and Dieng 1997, Kubik 1977, 
Leguy 2001, Lindfors 1977, Mapanje and White 1983, Mboyo 1986, Molhlig et al 1988, 


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xxx Oral Literature in Africa 

Let me, however, indulge myself by some remarks on one characteristic 
about the book which has struck me — the way that oral literature and its 
study leads rather than follows fresh insights into the nature and study of 
the wonderful literatures of humankind. It demands both the humanistic 
and the social scientific habit for its full appreciation. I was fortunate 
enough to come from a tradition— the Oxford literary discipline — of a 
humanistic respect for the beauties, properties and wonderful classical 
qualities of great literatures, and then, superimposed on this, of the social 
scientific propensity for asking the who, how, why questions, not least 
those searching queries about 'in whose name and to whose interests?'. 
Both perspectives, particularly perhaps the latter, are now commonplace in 
literary studies. But, at least in the context in which I was first writing, they 
presented something of a fresh perspective, one which could better inform 
our understanding of the rich products of the human imagination. It was 
not then the convention to ask hard questions about audiences, reception, 
settings, genres, historically changing assessments or differentiated 

The situation has not so greatly changed as one might have expected. 
One of the hopes I expressed in the first edition is that enough evidence 
might in due course be gathered to enable detailed histories of particular 
literary traditions on the same lines as those of better known cultures. To 
my disappointment this has happened only to a limited extent. There is 
B. W. Andrzejewski's long study and appreciation of Somali literature- 
oral, written and broadcast— a fraction of it gathered in the recent special 
issue by myself and Martin Orwin (Finnegan and Orwin 2011); Graham 
Furniss's fine account of Hausa oral, written and popular culture (Furniss 
1996); a number of works on the South African traditions by such scholars 
as Jeff Opland, Isobel Hofmeyr, Russell Kaschula and Liz Gunner; and the 
collective work of that remarkable group of collaborating French scholars 
such as Genevieve Calame-Griaule, Jean Derive and Ursula Baumgardt on 
what was once French West Africa. But beyond that very little. We have not 
after all progressed so very far beyond the notable compendium on African 
literatures by Andrzejweski, Pilaszewicz and Tyloch (1985). 

Mulokozi 2002, Newell 2002, Ngandu Nkashama 1992, Okpewho 1979, 1983, 1990, 1992, 
2003, 2004a, b, Orwin and Topan 2001, Peek and Yankah 2004, Prahlad 2005, Ricard 2004, 
Ricard and Swanapoel 1997, Ricard and Veit-Wild 2005, Riesz and Ricard 1990, Scheub 
1977, 1985, 2002, 2005, Schipper 2000, Seydou et al. 1997, Tarsitani 2010, Vail and White 
1991, White et al. 2001. See also general references and websites at the end of this volume 


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Preface to the Second Edition xxxi 

The silver lining is that this surely provides infinite opportunities not 
only for further first-hand field research but also for further syntheses— the 
topic perhaps for innumerable student projects and doctoral dissertations, 
each one of them of value — in Africa and elsewhere. In 1969, I hazarded 
a guess for the future. May I claim, with your help, to have been largely 
right? And that, we must hope, will be made the more possible through the 
widening sphere of open-access publication, the sharing and opening up of 
world-wide intellectual and artistic resources online. 

Partly for this reason we are now vastly more aware than a generation 
ago of both the rich potential and the problematic of genre diversification. 
One of the problems with which I had to tussle in the first edition was 
of presentation. In the circumstances as they then were I think my final 
decision to group the material, very roughly, in terms of subject matter (of 
genre some might say) was probably unavoidable. But by now the subject 
deserves, and must receive, greater critical attention, not least in the light of 
changing cultural practices, perceptions and assessments. 

One of the most famous passages in my original work was its short 
two-page note, extending from pages 108 to 110, on what turned out to be 
the uncontrollably emotive subject of epic. This, incredibly, has attracted 
more debate, criticism and, dare I say it, misunderstanding than the rest of 
the book put together— the more hyped up perhaps to market the book as a 
stimulating student text. Many must have been the essays and examination 
answers written to test students' mastery of the debate, with, no doubt, 
expected and well-rehearsed answers! I hope the assertions in this new 
Preface can form the occasion for others in the future. In the light of what 
was then known I do not think I was wrong to express my frank opinion in 
the 1960s. In fact I am proud to have had the honesty and clarity to pen it 
and to have lived to see the outcomes in the intervening years. 3 

Much has happened since then. Multiple epics have been collected— or 

On epic and epopee see further the collections, overviews and/or bibliographies in Barry 
2011, Baumgardt and Roulon-Doko 2010, Belcher 1999, Ben-Amos 1983, Biebuyck and 
Mateene 2002, Bornand 2005, Derive 2002, Derive and Dumestre 1999, Innes 1974, 1976, 
Kesteloot and Dieng 1997, Johnson, Hale and Belcher 1997, Martin et al. 2008, Mbonde 
Moangue 2005, Okpewho 1979, 1983, 1990, 1992, Seydou 1972, 2004, Towo Atangana and 
Abomo-Maurin 2009; also— to cite only a small fraction of the burgeoning and varied 
work-Austen 1999, Baumgardt 2002, Belcher 2004, Belinga 1977, Bird 1972, Clark 1977, 
Conrad 2004, Diabate 1995, Diop 2004, Gayibor 1983, Hale 1998, Haring 2012, Jansen 
2001a, b, Johnson 2003, 2004, Keesteloot 1989, 1993b, Kesteloot and Dumestre 1975, Ly 
1991, Meyer 1991, Mulokozi 2002, Ndong Ndoutoume 1970, Okpewho 2003, Pepper and 
Wolf 1972, Seydou, C, 2008, 2010a, b, Stone 1988, Thoyer 1995, Traore 2000. 


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xxxii Oral Literature in Africa 

at least lengthy poetic texts that can be so described— from many places 
in Africa, most notably ex-French West Africa. Collections, anthologies, 
translations and annotated texts abound. Epic now has its place in the corpus 
of recognised African literature, routing the once-predominance of prose 
forms, the more firmly established as an unquestioned African form through 
film and broadcast representation. The controversy— one I have always 
been glad to start off (as I learned in my Oxford days, debate is what gives 
a subject life)— has been productive indeed, not least in encouraging greater 
critical scrutiny of the term (notably in Derive 2002) and the challenge, led 
by Isidore Okpewho (1979), to the once taken-for-granted, but in practice 
typographically and culturally constructed, of the apparent distinction 
between prose and poetry, a re-assessment which has had such valuable 
implications for the study of more obviously 'written' literatures. 

Other topics where to an extent I risked my neck, deliberately so, have 
disappointingly attracted less interest. Few scholars have taken up my 
provocative remarks about myth (though I welcome Isidore Okpewho's 
typically well-documented Myth in Africa, 1983) and drama (see Breitinger 
1994, Conteh-Morgan and Olanyan 1999). Let me offer them up as hostages 
to fortune and suggest that these topics too might relay further critical 
investigation. There will almost certainly be other possible misconceptions, 
as yet unnoticed by myself, which I can only leave the diligent reader to 
winkle out. 

It will doubtless be clear to any careful reader of the first edition that 
I am sceptical about the idea of inevitable progress. I am therefore immensely 
glad to see that one of the great changes since I first wrote is our increasing 
awareness and, no doubt causally related to this, technological capture, 
of the multisensory nature of human artistry. This must surely be noted 
as one of the great advances of the last generation of scholars, aided but 
not dictated by new technological devices. We can now document sound, 
music, dance, movement and colour, and draw on brilliant many-sided 
resources to experience them, not least in the webpages the publishers 
are so illuminatingly adding to their print texts. By now we can gather to 
oral literature forms that would once have been ruled out as imported or 
'hybrid'— the bandiri Sokoto group, for instance, in which solo male-voice 
performances accompanied by drums and a singing chorus blend standard 
Islamic vocabulary with a delivery style reminiscent of both praise singers 
and Indian film song, at once local and transnational (Bubu and Furniss 
1999: 30); film representations of Sunjata and similar narratives (Hale 2003, 


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Preface to the Second Edition xxxiii 

Jorholt 2001); Zulu radio drama (Gunner 2000); or the 1998 CD by the 
Xhosa praise poet Zolani Mkiva set to contemporary hip-hop in a mixture 
of Xhosa and English (Kaschula 1999: 62, 2003). All these by now seem 
as relevant as those gathered in the first edition of this volume from the 
poetry and stories documented by nineteenth and early twentieth-century 

And alongside this too we must welcome with relief the move towards 
the appreciation of performance which has given us so much more rounded 
an understanding of the multidimensional arts of African, and not just 
African, expression— and not just oral either. I think I can claim to have 
anticipated a little of this a generation ago, one reason perhaps for my book 
having received such a happy reception and circulated so long in African 
circles and student courses (would that these might be resumed, now with 
new resources). The rediscovery of performance alongside a reverence for 
text is one of the great developments since the 1960s. Long may it continue, 
tempered as it must be by the respect for the textual formulations of 
humankind which give them presence and resonance. 

One of the defects of the original volume, to modern eyes at any rate, 
was its lack of illustrations. So on that note can I add that not the least 
among the advantages of the forward-looking Cambridge publishers who 
are producing this book is their multi-media resources, too small alas in 
my case but, I hope, growing as the years develop and scholars around the 
world add their materials. Let me at the same time note the lovely cover 
image which I hope may have attracted you— including I hope some new 
readers— to the book in the first place. I hope that that beautiful image, 
found by Jean Derive in a doctoral thesis and ultimately of provenance we 
know not what, will go some way to drawing attention to the genre of epic, 
making some small amends for its neglect in my first attempt. 

May I end on a shamelessly immodest note. I was quite surprised going 
through the text of this book to find that even now it is still in some ways 
pushing at the boundaries. That is perhaps what the study of African 
oral literature, inspiring and challenging as it still is, can do for a scholar. 
With its need for the humanistic approach of textual reverence working 
alongside a social scientist's touch of cynicism we are inevitably brought 
face-to-face with its changing and elusive nature, the dissolution of those 
long-established boundaries of prose and poetry, or of oral against written, 
collegial versus individual to rediscover the boundless searching paths of 
the human imagination. 


Oral Literature in Africa.indd 33 (G& 8/28/12 12:58 PM 


xxxiv Oral Literature in Africa 

As it has turned out, this has been another supremely happy period in 
my life. Still feeling well myself while dubbed ill by doctors, friends and 
family, I have spent two blissful months engaged in this work following 
my two weeks in hospital earlier in the summer. Guarded lovingly by 
a glowingly-content husband and constant care from dear family and 
friends, I have felt better than for years, and luxuriated in the small but 
time-consuming tasks of finishing this edition— now to be consigned to the 
tender inspired care of the team at Open Book Publishers. As the ancients 
used to say, 'Go on your way little book, and may the gods go with you'. 

Old Bletchley, UK, August 2011 


Oral Literature in Africa.indd 34 (£& 8/28/12 12:58 PM 



I have many thanks to express. All the editors of the 'Oxford Library of 
African Literature', E. E. Evans-Pritchard, R. G. Lienhardt and Wilfred 
Whiteley have helped me in many ways; in particular Wilfred Whiteley 
has worked through the whole book and made many helpful suggestions 
and criticisms; his serial letters on the subject over several months were 
a highlight of 1967-78 and I am more grateful to him than I can say. The 
following have also read and commented on parts of the book: Dr. G. Innes, 
Mr. D. K. Rycroft and Mrs. Agnes Finnegan. I have greatly appreciated and 
profited from their advice (even where I have not taken all of it). I have 
also had a number of most helpful discussions with Mr. Robin Horton and 
with my husband, Dr. David Murray. I have obviously used the writings 
of a great number of people, but would like to mention in particular the 
stimulus I have received from work by Bascom, Berry, Bowra, Babalola, 
and, above all, Nketia; I have not always agreed with them or even referred 
much directly to their work, but have constantly found them illuminating. 
Finally, the dedication is a serious one. Anything that is of interest in this 
book is ultimately due to the many people over many years who have 
taught me — and I do not mean only those who have taught me about Africa 
or about anthropology. 

I would also like to thank the staff of libraries where I have collected the 
material used here: especially the library of the (then) University College 
of Rhodesia and Nyasaland (in particular for allowing me access to the 
Doke Collection of works on Bantu studies); the library of the University 
of Ibadan (especially the Africana and reference librarians); and the library 
of the Institute of Social Anthropology, Oxford. I am also most grateful 
to the Institute of African Studies, Ibadan, for a grant towards the cost of 
obtaining photocopies of articles not locally available. 


Oral Literature in Africa.indd 35 {£& 8/28/12 12:58 PM 


xxxvi Oral Literature in Africa 

I would like to thank the following authors and publishers for permission 
to quote from the published works mentioned: 

Mr. Wande Abimbola (The Odu of Ifa, African Notes 1, 3, 1964). 

Oba Adetoyese Laoye I, The Timi of Ede (The orikis of 13 of the Timis ofEde, 1965). 

Dr. Ethel M. Albert and the American Anthropological Association 
('Rhetoric', 'logic', and 'poetics' in Burundi, reproduced by permission 
of the American Anthropological Association from the American 
Anthropologist, vol. 66, no. 6, Pt. 2 (1964), pp. 35-54). 

Professor R. G. Armstrong (Talking drums in the Benue-Cross River region 

of Nigeria, Phylon 15, 1954). 
Professor William Bascom (The sanctions of Ifa divination, JRAI 71, 1941; 

The forms of folklore: prose narratives, JAF 78, 1965). 

Professor Robin Horton and the International African Institute (The 
Kalahari Ekine society: a borderland of religion and art, Africa 33, 1963). 

Abbe Alexis Kagame (La poesie dynastique au Rwanda, Institut royal colonial 

beige, Mem. 22, 1, 1951). 
Professor E. J. Krige and Shuter and Shooter (Pty) Ltd. (The social system of 

the Zulus, 1936). 
Mr. L. S. B. Leakey and Methuen & Company Ltd. (Defeating Mau Man, 1954). 
Mbari publications (B. Gbadamosi and U. Beier, Yoruba poetry, 1959; 

H. Owuor, Luo songs, Black Orpheus 19, 1961). 

Professor J. H. Nketia (Funeral dirges of the Akan people, 1955; Akan poetry, 
Black Orpheus 3, 1958; Drum proverbs, Voices of Ghana, Accra, Ministry 
of Information and Broadcasting, 1958; African music in Ghana, 1962; 
Drumming in Akan communities of Ghana, 1963). 

Professor Willard Rhodes (Music as an agent of political expression, African 
studies bulletin 5, 2, 1962). 

Professor M. G. Smith and the International African Institute (The social 
functions and meaning of Hausa praise-singing, Africa 27, 1957). 

Father F. Theuws (Textes Luba, Bulletin du centre d'etude des problemes 
sociaux indigenes (C.E.PS.I.) 27, 1954). 

Dr. Hugh Tracey ('Lalela Zulu', 100 Zulu lyrics, 1948). 

Professor A. N. Tucker (Children's games and songs in the Southern Sudan, 
]RAL 63, 1933). 


Oral Literature in Africa.indd 36 (£& 8/28/12 12:58 PM 


Acknowledgements xxxvii 

M. Pierre Verger (Notes sur le culte des Orisa, Mem. IFAN 51, 1957). 

Witwatersrand University Press (extracts from the following articles in 
Bantu studies and African studies on the pages mentioned: E. W. Grant, 
The Izibongo of the Zulu chiefs, Bantu studies 13, 1927-9, pp. 211-3, 227; 
S. K. Lekgothoane, Praises of animals in Northern Sotho, Bantu studies 12, 
1938, pp. 193-5; P. A. W. Cook, History and Izibongo of the Swazi chiefs, 
Bantu studies 5, 1931, p. 193; R Laydevant, The praises of the divining 
bones among the Basotho, Bantu studies 7, 1933, pp. 349-50, 361, 369-70, 
371; M. Read, Songs of the Ngoni people, Bantu studies 11, 1937, pp. 14-15, 
16, 25, 30; B. Stefaniszyn, The hunting songs of the Ambo, African studies 10, 
1951, pp. 4, 6, 7, 9, 11; C. Cagnolo, Kikuyu tales, African studies 11, 1952, 
pp. 128-9; 12, 1953, pp. 129-30). 

'West Africa', Orbit House, London, E.C. 4 (R. Schachter, French Guinea's 
R.D.A. folk songs, West African review 29, 1958). 

I am also indebted to the Delegates of the Oxford University Press to 
quote from works published in the 'Oxford Library of African Literature', 
and from L. Harries, Swahili poetry, 1962; R. S. Rattray, Ashanti, 1923; 
R. S. Fletcher, Hausa sayings and folk-lore, 1912; N. Njururi, Agikuyu folk tales, 
1966; H. Tracey, Chopi musicians, 1948. 

I am also most grateful to the following for permission to quote from 
various unpublished sources: 

The Library, University College of Rhodesia (manuscripts in the Doke 

Mr. David Ry croft (personal communication quoted in Chapter 5). 

University of the Witwatersrand (S. M. Mofokeng, 'Notes and annotations 
of the praise-poems of certain chiefs and the structure of the praise-poems 
in Southern Sotho', unpub. honours thesis, 1945). 


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Oral Literature in Africa.indd 38 ^jJA- 8/28/12 12:58 PM 


Acknowledgements : 
Addendum 2011 

A slightly abridged version of Chapter 1 appeared in Finnegan 2007. As 
before, Ibadan Library's Africana collection, the Doke collection in southern 
Africa and the blessedly summer-opening libraries of the great universities 
of southern England have played their indispensible part. So too have 
national and international conferences, and the innumerable students 
and scholars in between who have followed up this work. I am also much 
indebted to the scholars who have commented on the new Preface and 
added their suggestions of references and website or supplemented the 
additional resources for this volume (, among 
them Jeff Opland, Russell Kaschula, Bob Cancel, Ursula Baumgardt and 
Jean Derive (the last two the more welcome as the first edition was coloured 
more by English than French scholarship) and Harold Scheub. 

Unlike the first edition, when I do not think the Clarendon Press would 
have welcomed suggestions of images, this edition contains illustrations. 
They are of variable quality, location and date (though some date back to 
the period when the first edition was being written, or reflect the fieldwork 
that so influenced my approach). Some are from earlier still. But they 
should at least serve to remind us of the multi-sensory nature of African 
oral literatures — realised not just in text but in performance and individual 

Old Bletchley, UK, 2012 


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Oral Literature in Africa.indd 40 {m- 8/28/12 12:58 PM 



Besides the normal abbreviations conventional in scholarly discourse the 
following abbreviations have been used: 


Afr. (in journal title) 
Aft. u. Ubersee 
Am. Anthrop. 



Ann. et mem. Com et. AOF 

Anth. Ling. 
Anth. Quart. 


ARSOM Bull. 


Bull. Com. et. AOF 

Bull. IF AN (B) 

African Abstracts. London. 

African/africain(e)(s) [etc]. 

Afrika und Ubersee. Berlin. 

American Anthropologist. Menasha, Wisconsin. 

Musee royal de I'Afrique centrale. Annates 

(sciences humaines). Tervuren. 

Musee royal du Congo beige. Annates (sciences 

humaines). Tervuren. 

Musee royal du Congo beige. Annates (sciences 

de Yhomme, linguistique). Tervuren. 

Annuaire et memoires du Comite d'etudes 

historiques et scientifiques de I'AOF. Goree. 

Anthropological Linguistics. Indiana. 

Anthropological Quarterly. Washington. 

Academie royale des sciences coloniales (sciences 

morales). Memoires. 

Brussels. Academie royale des sciences d'outre-mer. 

Memoires. Brussels. 

Academie royale des sciences d'outre-mer. 

Bulletin des seances. Brussels. 

Bulletin of the School of Oriental (and African) 

Studies. London. 

Bulletin du Comite d'etudes historiques et 

scientifiques de I'AOF. Paris. 

Institut francais d'Afrique noire. 

Bulletin (serie B). Dakar, Paris. 

Oral Literature in Africa.indd 41 


8/28/12 12:58 PM 

xlii Oral Literature in Africa 


Cah. etud. afr. 

IRCB Bull. 

IRCB Mem. 


}. Soc. africanistes Mem. 

Mitt. Inst. Orientforsch. 



Rass. studi etiop. 




Trans. Hist. Soc. Ghana 




Cahiers d'etudes africaines. Paris. 

Bidletin trimestriel du Centre d'etude des 

problemes sociaux indigenes. Elisabethville. 

International African Institute. London. 

Institut frangais d'Afrique noire. Dakar. 

Institut royal colonial beige. Bulletin des seances. 


Institut royal colonial beige. Memoires. Brussels. 

journal of American Folklore. Richmond, 


journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute. 


Journal de la Societe des africanistes. Paris. 

Institut frangais d'Afrique noire. Memoires. 


Mitteilungen des Instituts fur Orientforschung. 


Mitteilungen des Seminars fur orientalische 

Sprachen zu Berlin. 

Oxford Library of African Literature. Oxford. 

Rassegna di studi etiopici. Roma. 

School of Oriental and African Studies. 

University of London. 

Southwestern journal of Anthropology. 


Travaux et memoires de llnstitut d'ethnologie. 


Transactions of the Historical Society of Ghana. 


Zeitschrift fur afrikanische (und oceanische) 

Sprachen. Berlin. 

Zeitschrift fur Eingeborenen- Sprachen. Berlin. 

Zeitschrift fur Kolonial-Sprachen. Berlin. 

Oral Literature in Africa.indd 42 


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Note on Sources and References 

Only the more obvious sources have been used. Where I have come 
across unpublished material I have taken account of it but have not made 
a systematic search. The sources are all documentary with the exception 
of some comments arising from fieldwork among the Limba of Sierra 
Leone and a few points from personal observation in Western Nigeria; 
gramophone recordings have also occasionally been used. In general, I have 
tried not to take my main examples from books that are already very easily 
accessible to the general reader. I have, for instance, given references to, 
but not lengthy quotations from, the 'Oxford Library of African Literature' 
series or the French 'Classiques africains'. 

In time, I have not tried to cover work appearing after the end of 1967 
(though references to a few 1968 publications that I happen to have seen 
are included). This means that the book will already be dated by the time it 
appears, but obviously I had to break off at some point. 

References are given in two forms: (1) the general bibliography at the 
end, covering works I have made particular use of or consider of particular 
importance (referred to in the text merely by author and date); and (2) 
more specialized works not included in the general bibliography (full 
references given ad loc). This is to avoid burdening the bibliography at 
the end with too many references of only detailed or secondary relevance. 
With a handful of exceptions I have seen the works I cite. Where this is not 
so, I have indicated it either directly or by giving the source of the reference 
in brackets. Where I have seen an abstract but not the article itself, this 
is shown by giving the volume and number of African Abstracts (AA) in 
brackets after the reference. 

The bibliography and references are only selective. It would have been 
out of the question to have attempted a comprehensive bibliography. 


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1. The 'Oral 1 Nature of African 
Unwritten Literature 

The significance of performance in actualization, transmission, and composition. 
Audience and occasion. Implications for the study of oral literature. Oral art as 

Africa possesses both written and unwritten traditions. The former are 
relatively well known — at any rate the recent writings in European 
languages (much work remains to be publicized on earlier Arabic and 
local written literatures in Africa). The unwritten forms, however, are far 
less widely known and appreciated. Such forms do not fit neatly into the 
familiar categories of literate cultures, they are harder to record and present, 
and, for a superficial observer at least, they are easier to overlook than the 
corresponding written material. 

The concept of an oral literature is an unfamiliar one to most people 
brought up in cultures which, like those of contemporary Europe, lay stress 
on the idea of literacy and written tradition. In the popular view it seems to 
convey on the one hand the idea of mystery, on the other that of crude and 
artistically undeveloped formulations. In fact, neither of these assumptions 
is generally valid. Nevertheless, there are certain definite characteristics of 
this form of art which arise from its oral nature, and it is important at the 
outset to point to the implications of these. They need to be understood 
before we can appreciate the status and qualities of many of these African 
literary forms. 

It is only necessary here to speak of the relatively simple oral and 
literary characteristics of this literature. I am not attempting to contribute 
to any more ambitious generalized theory of oral literature in terms of 
its suggested stylistic or structural characteristics 1 or of the particular 

1 On which see e.g. Jousse 1924; Lord 1960; Propp 1958; cf . Olrik's 'epic laws', 1965. 


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4 Oral Literature in Africa 

type of mentality alleged to go with reliance on oral rather than written 
communication. 2 These larger questions I leave on one side to concentrate 
on the more obvious properties of unwritten literature. 3 

Figure 3. Nongelini Masithathu Zenani, Xhosa story-teller creating a 
dramatic and subtle story (photo Harold Scheub). 


There is no mystery about the first and most basic characteristic of oral 
literature— even though it is constantly overlooked in collections and 
analyses. This is the significance of the actual performance. Oral literature 
is by definition dependent on a performer who formulates it in words on 
a specific occasion— there is no other way in which it can be realized as 
a literary product. In the case of written literature a literary work can be 

2 e.g. Levi-Strauss 1966; cf. also the discussion and references in Goody and Watt 1963. 

3 For the general discussion in this chapter see particularly the valuable brief article by 
Bascom in JAF 1955, also Chadwicks 1932-40 (especially vol. iii) and Chadwick 1939. 
Some of the more detailed theories which have affected the study of African oral 
literature are discussed in Ch. 2. 

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1. The 'Oral' Nature of African Unwritten Literature 5 

said to have an independent and tangible existence in even one copy, so 
that questions about, say, the format, number, and publicizing of other 
written copies can, though not irrelevant, be treated to some extent as 
secondary; there is, that is, a distinction between the actual creation of a 
written literary form and its further transmission. The case of oral literature 
is different. There the connection between transmission and very existence 
is a much more intimate one, and questions about the means of actual 
communication are of the first importance— without its oral realization 
and direct rendition by singer or speaker, an unwritten literary piece 
cannot easily be said to have any continued or independent existence at 
all. In this respect the parallel is less to written literature than to music and 
dance; for these too are art forms which in the last analysis are actualized 
in and through their performance and, furthermore, in a sense depend on 
repeated performances for their continued existence. 

The significance of performance in oral literature goes beyond a mere 
matter of definition: for the nature of the performance itself can make an 
important contribution to the impact of the particular literary form being 
exhibited. This point is obvious if we consider literary forms designed to 
be delivered to an audience even in more familiar literate cultures. If we 
take forms like a play, a sermon, 'jazz poetry', even something as trivial as 
an after-dinner witty anecdote — in all these cases the actual delivery is a 
significant aspect of the whole. Even though it is true that these instances 
may also exist in written form, they only attain their true fulfilment when 
actually performed. 

The same clearly applies to African oral literature. In, for example, the 
brief Akan dirge 

Amaago, won't you look? 

Won't you look at my face? 

When you are absent, we ask of you. 

You have been away long: your children are waiting for you (Nketia 1955: 184) 

the printed words alone represent only a shadow of the full actualization of 
the poem as an aesthetic experience for poet and audience. For, quite apart 
from the separate question of the overtones and symbolic associations of 
words and phrases, the actual enactment of the poem also involves the 
emotional situation of a funeral, the singer's beauty of voice, her sobs, 
facial expression, vocal expressiveness and movements (all indicating the 
sincerity of her grief), and, not least, the musical setting of the poem. In fact, 
all the variegated aspects we think of as contributing to the effectiveness 


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6 Oral Literature in Africa 

of performance in the case of more familiar literary forms may also play 
their part in the delivery of unwritten pieces — expressiveness of tone, 
gesture, facial expression, dramatic use of pause and rhythm, the interplay 
of passion, dignity, or humour, receptivity to the reactions of the audience, 
etc., etc. Such devices are not mere embellishments superadded to the 
already existent literary work — as we think of them in regard to written 
literature— but an integral as well as flexible part of its full realization as a 
work of art. 

Unfortunately it is precisely this aspect which is most often overlooked 
in recording and interpreting instances of oral literature. This is partly 
due, no doubt, to practical difficulties; but even more to the unconscious 
reference constantly made by both recorders and readers to more familiar 
written forms. This model leads us to think of the written element as the 
primary and thus somehow the most fundamental material in every kind 
of literature — a concentration on the words to the exclusion of the vital and 
essential aspect of performance. It cannot be too often emphasized that this 
insidious model is a profoundly misleading one in the case of oral literature. 

This point comes across the more forcibly when one considers the various 
resources available to the performer of African literary works to exploit 
the oral potentialities of his medium. The linguistic basis of much African 
literature is treated in Chapter 3; but we must at least note in passing the 
striking consequences of the highly tonal nature of many African languages. 
Tone is sometimes used as a structural element in literary expression and 
can be exploited by the oral artist in ways somewhat analogous to the use 
of rhyme or rhythm in written European poetry. Many instances of this can 
be cited from African poetry, proverbs, and above all drum literature. This 
stylistic aspect is almost completely unrepresented in written versions or 
studies of oral literature, and yet is clearly one which can be manipulated 
in a subtle and effective way in the actual process of delivery (see Ch. 3). 
The exploitation of musical resources can also play an important part, 
varying of course according to the artistic conventions of the particular 
genre in question. Most stories and proverbs tend to be delivered as spoken 
prose. But the Southern Bantu praise poems, for instance, and the Yoruba 
hunters' ijala poetry are chanted in various kinds of recitative, employing a 
semi-musical framework. Other forms draw fully on musical resources and 
make use of singing by soloist or soloists, not infrequently accompanied or 
supplemented by a chorus or in some cases instruments. Indeed, much of 
what is normally classed as poetry in African oral literature is designed to 


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1. The 'Oral' Nature of African Unwritten Literature 7 

be performed in a musical setting, and the musical and verbal elements are 
thus interdependent. An appreciation, therefore, of these sung forms (and 
to some extent the chanted ones also) depends on at least some awareness 
of the musical material on which the artist draws, and we cannot hope fully 
to understand their impact or subtlety if we consider only the bare words 
on a printed page. 

In addition the performer has various visual resources at his disposal. 
The artist is typically face to face with his public and can take advantage 
of this to enhance the impact and even sometimes the content of his words. 
In many stories, for example, the characterization of both leading and 
secondary figures may appear slight; but what in literate cultures must be 
written, explicitly or implicitly, into the text can in orally delivered forms 
be conveyed by more visible means— by the speaker's gestures, expression, 
and mimicry. A particular atmosphere — whether of dignity for a king's 
official poet, light-hearted enjoyment for an evening story-teller, grief for 
a woman dirge singer— can be conveyed not only by a verbal evocation 
of mood but also by the dress, accoutrements, or observed bearing of the 
performer. This visual aspect is sometimes taken even further than gesture 
and dramatic bodily movement and is expressed in the form of a dance, 
often joined by members of the audience (or chorus). In these cases the 
verbal content now represents only one element in a complete opera-like 
performance which combines words, music, and dance. Though this 
extreme type is not characteristic of most forms of oral literature discussed 
in this volume, it is nevertheless not uncommon; and even in cases where 
the verbal element seems to predominate (sometimes in co-ordination with 
music), the actual delivery and movement of the performer may partake of 
something of the element of dancing in a way which to both performer and 
audience enhances the aesthetic effectiveness of the occasion. 

Much more could be said about the many other means which the oral 
performer can employ to project his literary products —his use, for instance, 
of vivid ideophones or of dramatized dialogue, or his manipulation of 
the audience's sense of humour or susceptibility (when played on by a 
skilled performer) to be amazed, or shocked, or moved, or enthralled 
at appropriate moments. But it should be clear that oral literature has 
somewhat different potentialities from written literature, and additional 
resources which the oral artist can develop for his own purposes; and 
that this aspect is of primary significance for its appreciation as a mode 
of aesthetic expression. 


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Oral Literature in Africa 

Figure 4. Mende performer, Sierra Leone, 1982. Note the performer's 

gestures and the clapping audience/chorus, essential for the performance 

(photo Donald Cosentino). 

The detailed way in which the performer enacts the literary product of 
his art naturally varies both from culture to culture and also among the 
different literary genres of one language. Not all types of performance 
involve the extremes of dramatization. Sometimes indeed the artistic 
conventions demand the exact opposite — a dignified aloof bearing, and 
emphasis on continuity of delivery rather than on studied and receptive 
style in the exact choice of words. This is so, for instance, of the professional 
reciter of historical Rwanda poetry, an official conscious of his intellectual 
superiority over amateurs and audience alike: 

Contrairement a l'amateur, qui gesticule du corps et de la voix, le recitant 
professionnel adopte une attitude impassible, un debit rapide et monotone. 
Si l'auditoire reagit en riant ou en exprimant son admiration pour un 
passage particulierement brillant, il suspend la voix avec detachement 
jusqu'a ce que le silence soit retabli. (Coupez and Kamanzi 1962: 8) 

This might seem the antithesis of a reliance on the arts of performance for 
the projection of the poem. In fact it is part of this particular convention 

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1. The 'Oral' Nature of African Unwritten Literature 9 

and, for the audience, an essential part. To this kind of austere style of 
delivery we can contrast the highly emotional atmosphere in which the 
southern Sotho praise poet is expected to pour out his panegyric. Out 
of the background of song by solo and chorus, working up to a pitch of 
excitement and highly charged emotion, 

the chorus increases in its loudness to be brought to a sudden stop with 
shrills of whistles and a voice (of the praise poet) is heard: 'Ka-mo-hopola 
mor'a-Nyeo!' (I remember the son of so-and-so!) 

Behind that sentence lurks all the stored up emotions and without 
pausing, the name ... is followed by an outburst of uninterrupted praises, 
save perhaps by a shout from one of the listeners: 'Ke-ne ke-le teng' (I was 
present) as if to lend authenticity to the narration. The praiser continues his 
recitation working himself to a pitch, till he jumps this way and that way 
while his mates cheer him . . . and finally when his emotion has subsided he 
looks at his mates and shouts: 'Ntjeng, Banna' (lit. Eat me, you men). After 
this he may burst again into another ecstasy to be stopped by a shout from 
him or from his friends: 'Ha e nye bolokoe kaofela!' or 'Ha e nye lesolanka!' 
a sign that he should stop. (Mofokeng 1945: 137) 

Different again are the styles adopted by story-tellers where there tends 
to be little of this sort of emotional intensity, but where the vividness and, 
often, humour of the delivery add drama and meaning to the relatively 
simple and straightforward wording. The Lamba narrator has been 
particularly well described: 

It would need a combination of phonograph and kinematograph to 
reproduce a tale as it is told .... Every muscle of face and body spoke, a 
swift gesture often supplying the place of a whole sentence .... The animals 
spoke each in its own tone: the deep rumbling voice of Momba, the ground 
hornbill, for example, contrasting vividly with the piping accents of Sulwe, 
the hare . . . (Smith and Dale ii, 1920: 336) 

Even within the same culture there may be many set styles of performance 
designed to suit the different literary genres recognized in the culture. 
Indeed these genres are sometimes primarily distinguished from each other 
in terms of their media of performance rather than their content or purpose. 
In Yoruba poetry, for instance, the native classification is not according to 
subject-matter or structure but by the group to which the reciter belongs 
and, in particular, by the technique of recitation and voice production. 
Thus there is ijala (chanted by hunters in a high-pitched voice), rara (a slow, 
wailing type of chant), and eivi (using a falsetto voice), and even though 
the content of various types may often be interchangeable, a master in one 
genre will not feel competent to perform a different type: he may know the 


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10 Oral Literature in Africa 

words but cannot manage the necessary subtleties of tone and style and 
the required type of voice production (Gbadamosi and Beier 1959: 9-10; 
Babalola 1966: vi, 23). Many other cases could also be cited where the mode 
of performance is as significant for the native critic as actual content or 

So far we have been speaking of the importance of performance in all 
types of oral literature and of the way in which techniques of delivery can 
be variously exploited and evaluated by performer or audience. But there 
is a further, related, characteristic of oral literature to which we must now 
turn. This is the question of improvisation and original composition in 
general. In other words, something more may be involved in the delivery 
of an oral piece than the fact of its actualization and re-creation in and 
through the performance, aided by a technique of delivery that heightens 
its artistic effectiveness. There are also the cases when the performer 
introduces variations on older pieces or even totally new forms in terms of 
the detailed wording, the structure, or the content. 

The extent of this kind of innovation, of course, varies with both genre 
and individual performer, and the question of original composition is 
a difficult one. It is clear that the process is by no means the same in 
all non-literate cultures or all types of oral literature, 4 and between the 
extremes of totally new creation and memorized reproduction of set pieces 
there is scope for many different theories and practices of composition. 
There are, for instance, the long-considered and rehearsed compositions 
of Chopi singers, the more facile improvisation of a leader in a 
boat- or dance-song, the combination and recombination of known motifs 
into a single unique performance among Limba story-tellers. There are also 
occasional cases, like the Rwanda poet just mentioned, where there is interest 
in the accuracy and authenticity of the wording (at least in outline) and where 
memorization rather than creation is the expected role of the performer. 

In spite of the very real significance of these variations, one of the 
striking characteristics of oral as distinct from written literature is its verbal 
variability. What might be called the 'same' poem or prose piece tends to 
be variable to such an extent that one has to take some account at least of 
the original contribution of the artist who is actualizing it— and not simply 
in terms of the technique of delivery. Take for instance the case of Ankole 
praise poems. Since the ideas expressed in these poems are stereotyped 

On some of the many variations in the forms of composition (including musical 
composition) among different peoples see Nettl 1954b and 1956: esp. pp. 12ff. 


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1. The 'Oral' Nature of African Unwritten Literature 11 

and repetitive, the omwevugi (poet/reciter) must change the wording to 
obtain variety. 

[He] has to rely to a great extent upon the manner in which he expresses 
these ideas in order to give beauty and interest to his poem. Herein lies 
the art of the accomplished omwevugi who, by the ingenious choice of his 
vocabulary, can repeat identical themes time and time again, always with a 
different and startling turn of phrase. (Morris 1964: 25) 

Again, there is the production of stories among the Thonga. It is worth 
quoting Junod's excellent description of this at some length. Having 
postulated the 'antiquity' of Thonga tales, he goes on: 

This antiquity is only relative: that is to say they are constantly transformed 
by the narrators and their transformations go much further than is generally 
supposed, further even than the Natives themselves are aware of. After 
having heard the same stories told by different story-tellers, I must confess 
that I never met with exactly the same version. First of all words differ. Each 
narrator has his own style, speaks freely and does not feel in any way bound 
by the expressions used by the person who taught him the tale. It would be a 
great error to think that, writing a story at the dictation of a Native, we possess 
the recognized standard form of the tale. There is no standard at all! . . . 

The same can be said with regard to the sequence of the episodes; although 
these often form definite cycles, it is rare to hear two narrators follow exactly 
the same order. They arrange their material as they like, sometimes in a very 
awkward way . . . 

I go further: New elements are also introduced, owing to the tendency 
of Native story-tellers always to apply circumstances of their environment 
to the narration. This is one of the charms of Native tales. They are living, 
viz., they are not told as if they were past and remote events, in an abstract 
pattern, but considered as happening amongst the hearers themselves .... So 
all the new objects brought by civilisation are, without the slightest difficulty, 
made use of by the narrator .... 

Lastly, my experience leads me to think that, in certain cases, the contents 
of the stories themselves are changed by oral transmission, this giving birth 
to numerous versions of a tale, often very different from each other and 
sometimes hardly recognizable. Qunod 1913, ii: 198-200. The whole of this 
passage is worth consulting) 

The scope of the artist to improvise or create may vary, but there is almost 
always some opportunity for 'composition'. It comes out in the exact choice 
of word and phrase, the stylistic devices like the use of ideophones, asides, 
or repetitions, the ordering of episodes or verses, new twists to familiar plots 
or the introduction of completely new ones, improvisation or variation of 
solo lines even while the chorus remains the same — as well, of course, as all 


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12 Oral Literature in Africa 

the elaborations and modifications to which the musical aspect is subject. 
Such additions and changes naturally take place within the current literary 
and cultural conventions— but what is involved, nevertheless, is some 
degree of individual creativity 5 With only a few exceptions, this process is 
likely to enter into the actualization of any piece of oral literature, which 
thus becomes in one sense a unique literary work— the work rendered on 
one particular occasion. 

The variability typical of oral literary forms has tended to be 
overlooked by many writers. This is largely because of certain theoretical 
assumptions held in the past about the verbatim handing down of oral 
tradition supposedly typical of non-literate societies. The model of written 
literature has also been misleading in this context, with its concept of exact 
transmission through manuscripts or printing press. It must therefore 
be stressed yet again that many of the characteristics we now associate 
with a written literary tradition do not always apply to oral art. There 
is not necessarily any concept of an 'authentic version', and when a 
particular literary piece is being transmitted to an audience the concepts of 
extemporization or elaboration are often more likely to be to the fore than 
that of memorization. There is likely to be little of the split, familiar from 
written forms, between composition and performance or between creation 
and transmission. A failure to realize this has led to many misconceptions— in 
particular the presentation of one version as the correct and authentic 
one — and to only a partial understanding of the crucial contribution made 
by the performer himself. 

A further essential factor is the audience, which, as is not the case with 
written forms, is often directly involved in the actualization and creation of 
a piece of oral literature. According to convention, genre, and personality, 
the artist may be more or less receptive to his listeners' reactions— but, with 
few exceptions, 6 an audience of some kind is normally an essential part of 
the whole literary situation. There is no escape for the oral artist from a 
face-to-face confrontation with his audience, and this is something which 
he can exploit as well as be influenced by. Sometimes he chooses to involve 
his listeners directly, as in story-telling situations where it is common for 
the narrator to open with a formula which explicitly arouses his audience's 

For instances of this see the various examples in Parts II and III and in particular the 
discussion in Ch. 9, pp. 266ff. 

e.g. the solitary working songs, some herding songs, sometimes individual rehearsals 
for later performance, and perhaps some of the lullabies. 


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1. The 'Oral' Nature of African Unwritten Literature 13 

attention; he also often expects them to participate actively in the narration 
and, in particular, to join in the choruses of songs which he introduces into the 
narrative. 7 The audience can be exploited in similar ways in the performance 
of poetry, particularly in sung lyrics where it is common practice for the poet 
to act as leader, singing and improvising the verse line, while the audience 
performs as a chorus keeping up the burden of the song, sometimes to the 
accompaniment of dancing or instrumental music. In such cases the close 
connection between artist and audience can almost turn into an identity, the 
chorus directly participating in at least certain parts of the performance. 

Even in less formalized relationships the actual literary expression can 
be greatly affected by the presence and reactions of the audience. For one 
thing, the type of audience involved can affect the presentation of an oral 
piece — the artist may tend, for instance, to omit obscenities, certain types 
of jokes, or complex forms in the presence of, say, children or missionaries 
(or even foreign students) which he would include in other contexts. And 
direct references to the characteristics, behaviour, or fortunes of particular 
listeners can also be brought in with great effectiveness in a subtle and 
flexible way not usually open to written literature. Members of the audience 
too need not confine their participation to silent listening or a mere 
acceptance of the chief performer's invitation to participate — they may also 
in some circumstances break into the performance with additions, queries, 
or even criticisms. This is common not only in the typical and expected 
case of story-telling but even in such formalized situations as that of the 
complex Yoruba ijala chants. A performance by one ijala artist is critically 
listened to by other experts present, and if one thinks the performer has 
made a mistake he cuts in with such words as 

I beg to differ; that is not correct. 

You have deviated from the path of accuracy . . . 

Ire was not Ogun's home town. 

Ogun only called there to drink palm-wine . . . 

to which the performer may try to defend himself by pleading his own 
knowledge or suggesting that others should respect his integrity: 

Let not the civet-cat trespass on the cane rat's track. 
Let the cane rat avoid trespassing on the civet-cat's path. 
Let each animal follow the smooth path of its own road. 

(Babalola 1966: 64, 62) 

7 For further details on audience participation in stories see Ch. 13, pp. 385£f. 


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14 Oral Literature in Africa 

This possibility of both clarification and challenge from members of the 
audience and their effect on the performance is indeed one of the main 
distinctions between oral and written literary pieces. As Plato put it long 
ago: 'It is the same with written words [as with painting]. You would think 
they were speaking as if they were intelligent, but if you ask them about 
what they are saying and want to learn [more], they just go on saying one 
and the same thing for ever' (Phaedrus, 275d). This leads on to a further 
important characteristic of oral literature: the significance of the actual 
occasion, which can directly affect the detailed content and form of the 
piece being performed. Oral pieces are not composed in the study and later 
transmitted through the impersonal and detached medium of print, but 
tend to be directly involved in the occasions of their actual utterance. Some 
of the poetry to be discussed in this volume is specifically 'occasional', in 
that it is designed for and arises from particular situations like funerals, 
weddings, celebrations of victory, soothing a baby, accompanying work, 
and so on; again, with certain prose forms (like, for instance, proverbs), 
appropriateness to the occasion may be more highly valued by local critics 
than the verbal content itself. But even when there is not this specific 
connection, a piece of oral literature tends to be affected by such factors 
as the general purpose and atmosphere of the gathering at which it is 
rendered, recent episodes in the minds of performer and audience, or even 
the time of year and propinquity of the harvest. Many oral recitations arise 
in response to various social obligations which, in turn, are exploited by 
poet and narrator for his own purposes. The performer of oral pieces could 
thus be said to be more involved in actual social situations than the writer 
in more familiar literate traditions. 


These characteristic qualities of oral literary forms have several implications 
for the study of oral literature. It is always essential to raise points which 
would seem only secondary in the case of written literature — questions 
about the details of performance, audience, and occasion. To ignore 
these in an oral work is to risk missing much of the subtlety, flexibility, 
and individual originality of its creator and, furthermore, to fail to give 
consideration to the aesthetic canons of those intimately concerned in the 
production and the reception of this form of literature. 

This is easy enough to state— but such implications are exceedingly 
difficult to pursue. Not only is there the seductive model of written literature 


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1. The 'Oral' Nature of African Unwritten Literature 15 

which constantly tempts one to set aside such questions for the more 
familiar textual analysis; there are also practical difficulties to surmount. 
The words themselves are relatively easy to record (even though this is often 
not done with much scholarly rigour): one can use dictation, texts written 
by assistants, or recordings on tape. But for the all-important aspect of the 
actual performance— how is one to record this? Even more difficult, how is 
one to convey it to readers not themselves acquainted with this art form? In 
the days before the availability of the portable tape-recorder this problem 
was practically insuperable. 8 The general tendency was thus for the early 
scholars to rely only on written records of the oral literature they collected. In 
many cases, furthermore, they were using quite inadequate sources, perhaps 
second-hand (so that they themselves had not direct experience of the actual 
performance involved), or in synopsis only with the artistic elaborations or 
repetitions omitted. This in itself goes a long way to account for the very 
simplified impression of African oral literature we often receive from these 
collections (particularly when it is remembered that they emphasized prose 
narrative rather than the more elaborate and difficult poetic forms). This 
was all the more unfortunate because the common practice of concentrating 
on the texts only encouraged others to follow the same pattern even when it 
became open to them to use new media for recording. 

By now there is an increasing, though by no means universal, reliance on 
the tape-recorder by serious students of African oral literature. This medium 
has helped immensely in solving some of the problems of recording details 
of the performance. But the visual effects produced by the artist still tend 
to elude record. Furthermore, the problem of communicating the style of 
performance to a wider audience is still a real one: few if any publishers are 
prepared to include recordings with their collections of published texts. Thus 
the public is still given the impression of African oral literature as a kind of 
written literature manque— apparently lacking the elaboration of wording 
and recognizability of associations known from familiar forms, and without 
the particular stylistic devices peculiar to oral forms being made clear. 

Even when the importance of performance is stressed in general terms, 
more needs to be said to convey the particular style and flavour of any given 
genre. A full appreciation must depend on an analysis not only of the verbal 
interplay and overtones in the piece, its stylistic structure and content, but 

A few early observers speak of recording certain of their texts on 'the phonograph'. See 
e.g. Torrend 1921 (Northern Rhodesian stories, including songs); Thomas 1910 ii (Edo); 
Lindblom iii, 1934: 41 (Kamba songs, recorded about 1912). 


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16 Oral Literature in Africa 

also of the various detailed devices which the performer has at his disposal 
to convey his product to the audience, and the varying ways these are used 
by different individuals. Something also needs to be said of the role and 
status of the composer/performer who is the one to communicate this oral 
art directly to his public, the variant forms that arise according to audience 
and occasion, the reactions and participation likely to be forthcoming from 
his listeners and spectators, the respective contributions, if any, of musical 
or balletic elements, and finally the social contexts in which this creation 
and re-creation takes place. 

All these factors are far more difficult to discover and describe than 
a mere transcription of the texts themselves, followed by their leisured 
analysis. It is not surprising that most editions of oral art concentrate on the 
textual aspect and say little or nothing about the other factors. But, difficult 
or not, without the inclusion of some consideration of such questions we 
have scarcely started to understand its aesthetic development as a product 
of literary artistry. 

Various questionable assumptions about the nature of oral tradition 
and so-called 'folk art' among non-literate people have not made matters 
any easier. Several of these theories are discussed in some detail in 
later chapters, but briefly they include such ideas as that 'oral tradition' 
(including what we should now call oral literature) is passed down word 
for word from generation to generation and thus reproduced verbatim from 
memory throughout the centuries; or, alternatively, that oral literature is 
something that arises communally, from the people or the 'folk' as a whole, 
so that there can be no question of individual authorship or originality. 
It can be seen how both these assumptions have inevitably discouraged 
interest in the actual contemporaneous performance, variations, and 
the role of the individual poet or narrator in the final literary product. 
A related assumption was that oral literature (often in this context called 
'folklore') was relatively undeveloped and primitive; and this derogatory 
interpretation was applied to oral literature both in completely non-literate 
societies and when it coexisted with written literary forms in 'civilized' 
cultures. This opinion received apparent confirmation from the appearance 
of bare prose texts in translation or synopsis, and people felt no need to 
enter into more profound analysis about, say, the overtones and artistic 
conventions underlying these texts, far less the individual contribution of 
performer and composer. There was thus no need for further elucidation, 
for it was assumed in advance that little of real interest could emerge from 
this 'inherently crude' oral medium. 


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1. The 'Oral' Nature of African Unwritten Literature 17 

There are also various other special difficulties about the presentation 
of African oral literature— how, for instance, to delimit literary from 
everyday speech forms or convey the subtleties or overtones which only 
emerge fully to one familiar with the cultural and literary traditions of 
the society. But these do not arise directly from the oral nature of African 
literature and will thus be more suitably discussed later. The main point 
I want to reiterate here, the more emphatically because of the way it has 
so often been overlooked in the past, is that in the case of oral literature, 
far more extremely than with written forms, the bare words can not be left 
to speak for themselves, for the simple reason that in the actual literary 
work so much else is necessarily and intimately involved. With this type 
of literature a knowledge of the whole literary and social background, 
covering these various points of performance, audience, and context, is, 
however difficult, of the first importance. Even if some of the practical 
problems of recording and presenting these points sometimes appear 
insoluble, it is at least necessary to be aware of these problems from the 
outset, rather than, as so commonly happens, substituting for an awareness 
of the shallowness of our own understanding an imaginary picture of the 
shallowness in literary appreciation and development of the peoples we 
are attempting to study. 


So far we have been concentrating on the oral aspect of African unwritten 
literature— the implications of this for the nature of such literature and the 
difficulties of presentation and analysis to which it gives rise. Little has 
yet been said about the literary status of these oral products, and we have 
indeed been begging the question of how far these can in fact be regarded 
as a type of literature at all. 

Various positions have been taken up on this question. A number 
of the scholars who have carried out extensive studies of the oral art of 
non-literate peoples are quite dogmatic about the suitability of the term 
'literature'. N. K. Chadwick, for one, is explicit on this point: 

In 'civilised' countries we are inclined to associate literature with writing; 
but such an association is accidental .... Millions of people throughout Asia, 
Polynesia, Africa and even Europe who practise the art of literature have 
no knowledge of letters. Writing is unessential to either the composition or 
the preservation of literature. The two arts are wholly distinct. 

(Chadwick 1939: 77) 


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18 Oral Literature in Africa 

This general view is supported, by implication at least, by the many 
writers who have referred to their collections or descriptions of oral forms 
by such terms as 'oral literature', 'unwritten literature', or sometimes 
'popular' or 'traditional literature'. 9 The opposite viewpoint, however, 
also seems to carry weight. There is, for one thing, the association, both 
popular and etymological, between 'literature' and letters or writing. The 
fact, furthermore, that oral art depends for its creation on the actual (and 
thus ephemeral) performance of it seems to some to disqualify it from true 
literary status, so that other terms like 'folk art', 'folklore', or 'verbal art' 
appear more accurate designations. Added to this is the alleged practicality 
so often supposed to be the root of 'primitive art forms'. According to 
this view, even if some primitive formulation, say a story, might seem in 
outward form, style, or content to present a superficial resemblance to 
a written work of fiction, in essentials, being fundamentally pragmatic 
rather than aesthetic, it is something wholly different. Finally, individual 
authorship is often presumed not to be in question in the case of oral forms, 
being replaced, according to current fashions, by such supposed entities 
as 'the group mind', 'the folk', 'social structure', or simply 'tradition', all of 
which equally result in a finished product with a totally different basis and 
orientation from that of written literature. This kind of view, then, would 
draw a basic distinction between, on the one hand, the products of a written 
literary tradition and, on the other, most if not all of the instances of verbal 
art included in this and similar volumes. 

In this controversy, my own position is clearly implied in both my title 
and the discussion so far. It is that, despite difficulties of exact delimitation 
and presentation, the main body of the material I discuss and illustrate in 
this volume falls within the domain of literature (the class of literature I call 
'oral literature'); and that it is misleading as well as unfruitful to attempt 
to draw a strict line between the verbal art of literate and of non-literate 
cultural traditions. 

In part this approach is an arbitrary one. It is, after all, open to anyone 
to produce a wide enough definition of 'literature' for all the examples 
produced here to fit within its limits— or a narrower one to exclude them. 
But it is also adopted because it has been found that to approach instances of 
oral art as literary forms and thus proceed to ask about them the same kind 
of questions we might raise in the case of written literature, has in fact been 

9 For early approaches of this kind see Ch. 2. 


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1. The 'Oral' Nature of African Unwritten Literature 19 

a productive approach leading to both further appreciation of the oral forms 
and a deeper understanding of their role in society. Such an approach then 
is in principle its own justification— how justifiable it in fact turns out to be 
in leading to greater insight can be left to the readers of this book to judge. 10 
But there is also more to this view than whether or not it is a fruitful one. It 
seems to me to bear more relation to the empirical facts than its opposite in 
that many of the apparent reasons for the supposed cleavage between oral 
and written forms have in fact rested on mistaken assumptions. So, even 
though I am not attempting to put forward any new definition or theory of 
literature — an attempt likely to raise as many difficulties as it solves— some 
of these misleading points should be clarified at this stage. 11 

The first point can be easily disposed of. The etymological connections 
between literature and writing may seem at first a clear validation for 
limiting the term to literate cultures. But even if we are prepared to be 
coerced by etymologies (and why should we, unless to rationalize already 
held assumptions?), we must admit that this association by no means exists 
in all languages — we need only mention the German Wortkunst or Russian 
slovesnost (as pointed out in Wellek and Warren 1949: 11) — so it can hardly 
be said to have universal validity. 

The fact of a positive and strongly held popular association between 
writing and literature is more difficult to deal with. Current prejudices may 
be false, but they go deep. And this is especially so when they are securely 
rooted in particular historical and cultural experiences, so that the familiar 
and traditional forms of a given culture come to be regarded as the natural 
and universal ones, expected to hold good for all times and places. This kind 
of ethnocentric preconception has had to be revised by scholars in other 
spheres such as, for instance, the study of modes of political organization 
or religious practices, as they are viewed in the light of wider research and 
thus greater comparative perspective. This, it seems now, may also be the 
case with the study of literature. In spite of the natural reluctance to regard 
very different verbal forms as of ultimately the same nature as our own 
familiar types, we have at least to consider the possibility that the literary 
models of (in effect) a few centuries in the Western world, which happen 
to be based on writing and more especially on printing, may not in fact 
exhaust all the possibilities of literature. 

10 Or, better, to the readers of such original and detailed studies as e.g. Nketia 1955 etc., 
Babalpla 1966, Kagame 1951b. 

11 Several of them are more fully elaborated in later chapters, particularly Ch. 2. 


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Oral Literature in Africa 

Figure 5. Dancers from Oyo, south West Nigeria, 1970 
(photo David Murray). 

This possibility can be rendered more intelligible by considering further the 
relationship between oral and written literature. It becomes clear that 
this is a difference of degree and not of kind: there are many different 
gradations between what one could take as the oral and the printed ideal 
types of literature. It is perhaps enough to allude to the literature of the 
classical world which, as is well known, laid far more stress on the oral 
aspect than does more recent literature. Even laying aside the famous and 
controversial question of the possible oral composition of Homer's great 
epics (universally passed as 'literature'), we can see that the presence of 
writing can coexist with an emphasis on the significance of performance 
as one of the main means of the effective transmission of a literary work. 
For the Greeks there was a close association between words, music, and 
dance — one which seems much less obvious to a modern European— and 
Aristotle, still accepted as one of the great literary critics, can give as his 

Oral Literature in Africa.indd 20 


8/28/12 12:58 PM 


1. The 'Oral' Nature of African Unwritten Literature 21 

first reason for considering tragedy superior to epic the fact that it makes 
an additional impact through music and visual effects (Poetics, 1462a). 
Throughout much of antiquity even written works were normally read 
aloud rather than silently and one means of transmitting and, as it were, 
'publishing' a literary composition was to deliver it aloud to a group of 
friends. In such cases the relationship of the performance and transmission 
of literary works to the content is not totally dissimilar from that in African 
oral literature. 

What is true of classical literature is also true of many cultures in 
which writing is practised as a specialist rather than a universal art and, in 
particular, in societies without the printing-press to make the multiplication 
of copies feasible. We are so accustomed, at our present stage of history, 
to associate the written word with print that we tend to forget that the 
mere fact of writing does not necessarily involve the type of detachment 
and relatively impersonal mode of transmission that we connect with 
printing. Transmission by reading aloud or by performing from memory 
(sometimes accompanied by improvisation) is not at all incompatible with 
some reliance on writing— a situation we find not only in earlier European 
societies 12 but also in a few of the African instances described later (Ch. 3, 
Ch. 7). Here again the contrast between fully oral forms on the one hand 
and the impersonal medium of print on the other is clearly only a relative 
one: we would hardly suggest that works written and, in part, orally 
transmitted before the advent of printing were therefore not literature, any 
more than we would be prepared to state dogmatically that the Homeric 
epics— or an African poem— only became literature on the day they were 
first written down. 

Even in a society apparently dominated by the printed word the oral 
aspect is not entirely lost. Perhaps because of the common idea that written 
literature is somehow the highest form of the arts, the current significance of 
oral elements often tends to be played down, if not overlooked completely. 
But we can point to the importance of performance and production in a 
play, the idea held by some at least that much poetry can only attain its full 
flavour when spoken aloud, or the increasing but often underestimated 

12 See for instance H. J. Chaytor's pertinent comment on medieval vernacular literature: 'In 
short, the history of the progress from script to print is a history of the gradual substitution 
of visual for auditory methods of communicating and receiving ideas ... To disregard the 
matter and to criticise medieval literature as though it had just been issued by the nearest 
circulating library is a sure and certain road to a misconception of the medieval spirit' 
(1945: 4). The oral aspects of manuscript culture are further discussed in McLuhan 1962. 


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22 Oral Literature in Africa 

significance of the oral reproduction and dissemination of classic literary 
forms (as well as wholly new compositions) through radio and television. 
Add to this the interplay between the oral and the written— the constant 
interaction in any tradition between the written word and, at the least, 
the common diction of everyday speech (an interaction which may well 
be heightened by the spreading reliance on radio and television channels 
of transmission), as well as the largely oral forms like speeches, sermons, 
children's rhymes, satires depending in part on improvisation, or many 
current pop songs, all of which have both literary and oral elements— in 
view of all this it becomes clear that even in a fully literate culture oral 
formulations can play a real part, however unrecognized, in the literary 
scene as a whole. 

Even so brief an account suggests that our current preoccupation with 
written, particularly printed, media may give only a limited view and 
that the distinction between oral and written forms may not be so rigid 
and so profound as is often implied. It is already widely accepted that 
these two media can each draw on the products of the other, for orally 
transmitted forms have frequently been adopted or adapted in written 
literature, and oral literature too is prepared to draw on any source, 
including the written word. To this interplay we can now add the fact that 
when looked at comparatively, the two forms, oral and written, are not 
so mutually exclusive as is sometimes imagined. Even if we picture them 
as two independent extremes we can see that in practice there are many 
possibilities and many different stages between the two poles and that the 
facile assumption of a profound and unbridgeable chasm between oral and 
written forms is a misleading one. 

Some further misconceptions about the nature of oral forms must be 
mentioned briefly here; they will be taken up further in the main body 
of the book. First, the idea that all primitive (and thus also all oral) art 
is severely functional, and thus basically different from art in 'civilized' 
cultures. To this it must be replied that this whole argument partly arises 
from a particular and temporary fashion in the interpretation of art (the 
rather unclear idea of 'art for art's sake'); that since there is little detailed 
empirical evidence on the various purposes of particular genres of oral 
literature— it was much easier to write down texts and presume functions 
than to make detailed inquiries about the local canons of literary criticism — this 
assertion rests as much on presupposition as on observed fact; and, finally, 
that the whole argument is partly just a matter of words. How far and in 


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1. The 'Oral' Nature of African Unwritten Literature 23 

what sense and for whom a given piece of literature is 'functional' and just 
how one assesses this is as difficult a question in non-literate as in literate 
cultures. Certainly we can say that even when we can find a clear social 
purpose (and the 'occasional' aspect in oral literature varies according to 
genre, composer, and situation just as it does in written literature), this by 
no means necessarily excludes an interest in aesthetic as well as functional 

The question of authorship in oral literature has already been 
mentioned in the context of performance and of the composition that arises 
from this. By now, few people probably take very seriously the concept 
of the 'group mind' or the 'folk mind' as an empirical entity to which the 
authorship of particular literary pieces could be assigned. But in the case 
of the oral literature of basically unfamiliar cultures this idea acquires 
an apparent validity mainly from ignorance of the actual circumstances 
involved. Again, this is a large question that cannot be pursued in detail 
here. But it can be said categorically that while oral literature — like all 
literature — in a sense arises from society and, being oral, has the extra facet 
of often involving more direct interplay between composer and audience, 
nevertheless it is totally misleading to suggest that individual originality 
and imagination play no part. The exact form this takes and the exact 
degree of the familiar balance between tradition and creativity naturally 
vary with the culture, the genre, and the personalities involved. But it 
will be clear from the instances in this volume that the myth attributing 
all oral literature either to the 'community' alone or, alternatively, to one 
particular portion of it ('the folk') is not true to the facts; and that the 
whole picture is much more complex than such simplified and speculative 
assumptions would suggest. 

A final point which has, I think, wrongly deterred people from the 
recognition of oral forms as a type of literature has been the idea that they 
have only resulted in trivial formulations without any depth of meaning or 
association. This impression has, it is true, been given by the selection and 
presentation of much of the African verbal art that reaches the public— the 
emphasis on animal tales and other light-hearted stories (relatively easy to 
record) rather than the more elaborate creations of the specialist poets; and 
the common publication of unannotated texts which give the reader no 
idea whatsoever of the social and literary background which lies behind 
them, let alone the arts of the performer. Quite apart from mere problems 
of translation, the difficulties of appreciating the art forms of unfamiliar 


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24 Oral Literature in Africa 

cultures without help are well known. We need only consider— to take just 
one example— how much our appreciation of 

Like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore, 
So do our minutes hasten to their end . . . 

depends, among other things, on our knowledge of the particular art form 
used, its whole literary setting, the rhythm, phrasing, and music of the line, 
and, not least, on the emotive overtones of such familiar words as 'waves', 
'minutes', 'end' which bring us a whole realm of associations, sounds, and 
pictures, all of which can be said to form an essential part of the meaning 
of the line. This is obvious— but it is often forgotten that exactly the same 
thing applies in oral literature: 

Grandsire Gyima with a slim but generous arm 

(Nana Gyima abasateaa a adoes wo mu). (Nketia 1955: 195, 245) 

is the first line of an Akan dirge, and seems of itself to have little poetic 
force or meaning. But its significance appears very different when we 
know the overtones of the concept of generosity, metaphorically expressed 
here through the familiar concept of the dead man's 'arm'; the particular 
style and structure, so pleasing and acceptable to the audience; the rhythm 
and quasi-musical setting of the line; the familiarity and associations of 
the phrasing; the known fact that this is a mother singing for her dead 
son whom she is calling her 'grandsire' in the verse; and the grief-laden 
and emotional atmosphere in which these dirges are performed and 
received— all this makes such a line, and the poem that follows and 
builds on it, something far from trivial to its Akan listeners. Akan dirges 
are among the few African literary genres that have as yet been subject to 
any full treatment along these lines (Nketia 1955; see also Ch. 6 below) but 
there is reason to suppose that similar discussions of other genres would 
also reveal ample evidence that the charge of triviality in oral literature as 
a whole rests far more on ignorance and unfamiliarity than on any close 
acquaintance with the facts. 

There is one further problem that should be mentioned here. This is 
the difficult question of how to distinguish in wholly oral communication 
between what is to count as literature and what is not. Are we to include, 
say, speeches by court elders summing up cases, an impromptu prayer, 
non-innovatory genres like some formulaic hunting-songs, formal words 
of welcome, or the dramatic reporting of an item of news? 

This is a real problem to which there is no easy solution. However, it 
has to be said at once that despite first impressions there is no difference 


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1. The 'Oral' Nature of African Unwritten Literature 25 

in principle here between written and unwritten literature. In written forms 
too there are problems in delimiting what is truly 'literature'. It is largely 
a matter of opinion, for example, as to whether we should include science 
fiction, certain newspaper articles, or the words of popular songs. Opinions 
differ, furthermore, not only between different individuals and different 
age and social groups, but at different periods of history. The problem, 
clearly, is not unique to oral literature. 

In considering this question, the criteria used in relation to oral 
literature are much the same as in the case of written literature. First, some 
cases are clear-cut. These are instances when the accepted characteristics of 
'literature' 13 are clearly applicable, or where the African examples are clearly 
comparable with literary genres recognized in familiar European cultures. 
In other words, once the concept of an oral literature is allowed, there will 
be no dispute over such cases as panegyric poetry, lyrics for songs, fictional 
narratives, or funeral elegies. Other cases are not so clear. Here at least one 
criterion must be the evaluation of the particular societies involved— we 
cannot assume a priori that their definitions of 'literary' will necessarily 
coincide with those of English culture. Since the evaluation of some form 
as literature is, as we have seen, a matter of opinion, it seems reasonable 
at least to take seriously the local opinions on this. Thus when we are told 
that among the Ibo 'oratory . . . calls for an original and individual talent 
and . . . belongs to a higher order [than folk-tales]', this ought to incline us 
to consider including at least some rhetorical speeches as a part of Ibo oral 
literature (although among other societies with less interest in oratory this 
may not be the case). Again, proverbs are sometimes locally thought to be 
as serious and 'literary' as more lengthy forms — and in some cases are even 
expanded into long proverb-poems, as with the 'drum proverbs' of the 
Akan. Finally we have verbal forms that are clearly marginal: obviously not 
'literature' in their own right, and yet not irrelevant to literary formulation 
and composition. We could instance metaphorical names, elaborate 
greeting forms, the serious art of conversation, and, in some cases, proverbs 
or rhetoric. As described in Chapter 16, these show an appreciation of the 
artistic aspect of language and a rich background from which more purely 
literary forms arise — a relationship perhaps particularly obvious in the 
case of oral literature, but not unknown to literate cultures. The plan of the 
central portion of this book 14 is to proceed from the clearly 'literary' forms 

13 See below 

14 In particular Parts II and III. 


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26 Oral Literature in Africa 

through more questionable cases like proverbs or riddles to the marginally 
relevant forms like names or wordplay. There is no one point at which 
I would draw a definite dividing line, even though one extreme is clearly 
literary the other not. 

Earlier I made the negative point that many of the assumptions that 
seem to set oral forms totally apart from written literature are in fact 
questionable or false. The same point can be put more positively. Oral 
literary forms fall within most definitions of 'literature' (save only for the 
point about writing as a medium, not always included in such definitions), 
and the problems arising from most of these apply to oral as well as to 
written literary forms. In other words, though I am not putting forward 
any one particular definition of 'literature', it seems clear that the elements 
out of which such definitions tend, variously, to be constructed are also 
recognizable in oral forms, often with exactly the same range of ambiguities. 
The basic medium is words — though in both cases this verbal element may 
be supplemented by visual or musical elements. Beyond this, literature, 
we are often told, is expressive rather than instrumental, is aesthetic 
and characterized by a lack of practical purpose — a description equally 
applicable to much oral art. The exploitation of form, heightening of style, 
and interest in the medium for its own sake as well as for its descriptive 
function can clearly be found in oral literary forms. So too can the idea 
of accepted literary conventions of style, structure, and genre laid down 
by tradition, which are followed by the second-rate and exploited by the 
original author. The sense in which literature is set at one remove from 
reality is another familiar element: this too is recognizable in oral literature, 
not merely in such obvious ways as in the use of fiction, satire, or parable, 
but also through the very conventionality of the literary forms allied to 
the imaginative formulation in actual words. If we prefer to rely on an 
ostensive type of definition and list the kind of genres we would include 
under the heading of 'literature', this procedure gives us many analogies in 
oral literature (though we may find that we have to add a few not familiar 
in recent European literature). Among African oral genres, for instance, 
we can find forms analogous to European elegies, panegyric poetry, lyric, 
religious poetry, fictional prose, rhetoric, topical epigram, and perhaps 
drama. Whichever approach we adopt we shall run into some difficulties 
and unclear cases— in the case of oral literature the problem of delimiting 
literary from everyday spoken forms is a peculiarly difficult one which I do 
not think I have solved successfully here— but the point I want to stress is 


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1. The 'Oral' Nature of African Unwritten Literature 27 

that these difficulties are fundamentally the same as those that arise in the 
study of any kind of literature. 15 

This argument tends to the conclusion that there is no good reason to 
deny the title of 'literature' to corresponding African forms just because 
they happen to be oral. If we do treat them as fundamentally of a different 
kind, we deny ourselves both a fruitful analytic approach and, furthermore, 
a wider perspective on the general subject of comparative literature. We 
need of course to remember that oral literature is only one type of literature, 
a type characterized by particular features to do with performance, 
transmission, and social context with the various implications these have 
for its study. But for all these differences, the view that there is no essential 
chasm between this type of literature and the more familiar written forms 
is a basic assumption throughout this book. 

15 For some further discussion of the question of African oral forms as 'literature' see 
Whiteley 1964: 4ff. and references given there. 


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Oral Literature in Africa.indd 28 ^jJA- 8/28/12 12:58 PM 


2. The Perception of African 
Oral Literature 

Nineteenth-century approaches and collections. Speculations and neglect in the 
twentieth century. Recent trends in African studies and the revival of interest in 
oral literature. 

A considerable amount of work has been published on the subject of 
African oral literature in the last century or so. But the facts are scattered 
and uneven, often buried in inaccessible journals, and their significance 
has not been widely appreciated. The popular image of Africa as a land 
without indigenous literary traditions retains its hold; even now, it is still 
sometimes expressed in a form as crude as that criticized by Burton a 
century ago: 

The savage custom of going naked', we are told, 'has denuded the mind, and 
destroyed all decorum in the language. Poetry there is none .... There is no 
metre, no rhyme, nothing that interests or soothes the feelings, or arrests the 
passions . . . (Burton 1865: xii) 

Even those who would immediately reject so extreme a view are still often 
unconsciously influenced by fashionable but questionable assumptions 
about the nature of literary activity among non-literate peoples, which 
determine their attitude to the study of African oral literature. We still hear, 
for instance, of the 'savage' reliance on the 'magical power of the word', 
of the communal creation of 'folktales' with no part left for the individual 
artist, or of the deep 'mythic' consciousness imagined to be characteristic 
of non-literate society. All in all, there is still the popular myth of Africa as 
a continent either devoid of literature until contact with civilized nations 
led to written works in European languages, or possessing only crude and 
uninteresting forms not worthy of systematic study by the serious literary 
or sociological student. 


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30 Oral Literature in Africa 

In fact, there is a strong indigenous tradition of both unwritten and, in 
some areas, written literature in Africa. 1 The oral literature in particular 
possesses vastly more aesthetic, social, and personal significance than 
would be gathered from most general publications on Africa. Far more, 
too, has been published on this subject than is usually realized even by 
many of the students who have recently taken some interest in the subject. 
But because much of the detailed research this century has been carried 
out by individuals working in isolation or, at best, by various schools of 
researchers out of touch with the work of other groups, the subject as a 
whole has made little progress over the last generation or so, whether in 
consolidating what is already known, in criticizing some of the earlier 
limiting preconceptions, or in publicizing the results to date. 

This introductory chapter traces briefly the history of the study of African 
oral literature over the last century. The purpose of the chapter is twofold. 
First, there have been so many assumptions and speculations about both 
Africa and oral literature that it is necessary to expose these to clear the way 
for a valid appreciation of our present knowledge of the subject. 2 Second, 
the various sources we have for the study of African oral literature need 
to be assessed and put in historical perspective. For though there are far 
more collections of African oral art than is usually realized, they are of 
very uneven quality and their usefulness depends on a knowledge of the 
theoretical preconceptions of the collector. 


The European study of oral literature in Africa begins about the middle of 
the last century. There had been a few isolated efforts before then, notably 
Roger's retelling of Wolof fables from Senegal (1828) and an increasing 
awareness of the written Arabic tradition. But until the mid-century there 
was no available evidence to refute the popular European image of Africa 
as totally without literary pretensions. By about the 1850s the position 
changed. African linguistic studies were emerging as a specialist and 
scholarly field, and this in turn led to a fuller appreciation of the interest 
and subtleties of African languages. The main motive of many of these 

1 Written literature, mainly on Arabic models, is further mentioned in Ch. 3; cf. also Ch. 7. 

2 For more detailed accounts of the study of oral literature in general (usually under the 
name of 'folklore') see Thompson 1946; Jacobs 1966; Krappe 1930; Dorson, i, 1968; and 
the more general essays in von Sydow 1948. 


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2. The Perception of African Oral Literature 31 

linguistic studies was to aid the evangelization of Africa, and grammars, 
vocabularies, and collections of texts appeared by and for missionaries. 
There was close collaboration between linguists and missionaries, and 
many of the great collections of texts in the nineteenth century were a 
result of professional or amateur linguists working in full sympathy with 
the missionary movement and published under its auspices. 3 A further 
stimulus was the general interest in comparative studies. This was revealed 
not only in linguistic work and in the comparative analysis of social and 
political institutions, but also in the field of literature: in the school of 
comparative mythology and in the impetus to collection arising from the 
publications of the Grimm brothers in Germany. 

The result of these various influences was the publication of many 
lengthy collections of African texts and translations in the second half of the 
nineteenth century. 4 These contain narratives of various kinds (including 
stories about both animals and humans), historical texts, proverbs, riddles, 
vernacular texts describing local customs, sometimes additional vernacular 
compositions by the collector, and very occasionally songs or poems. There 
is of course some variation in size and quality, but by and large these 
editions compare favourably with many more recent publications. Most 
include complete texts in the vernacular with a facing translation usually 
into English or German, and occasionally a commentary (most often 

The main emphasis in these collections was, it is true, linguistic (or, in 
some cases, religio-educational, preoccupied with what it was thought 
fitting for children to know). There was little attempt to relate the texts 
to their social context, elucidate their literary significance, or describe the 
normal circumstances of their recitation. There are many questions, therefore, 
which these texts cannot answer. Nevertheless, the very size of many of 
these collections, presenting a corpus of literature from a single people, 
often throws more light on the current literary conventions among a given 
people than all the odd bits and pieces which it became so fashionable to 

3 On this period see Curtin 1965: 392ff.; Greenburg 1965: 432ff. 

4 e.g. Casalis 1841 (Sotho), Koelle 1854 (Kanuri), Schlenker 1861 (Temne), Burton 1865 (a 
re-publication of the collections of others), Bleek 1864 (Hottentot), Callaway 1868 (Zulu), 
Steere 1870 (Swahili), Christaller 1879 (Twi), Berenger-Feraud 1885 (Senegambia), Schon 
1885 (Hausa), Theal 1886 (Xhosa), Jacottet 1895, 1908 (Sotho), Taylor 1891 (Swahili), 
Buttner 2 vols., 1894 (Swahili), Chatelain 1894 (Kimbundu), Junod 1897 (Ronga), Dennett 
1898 (Fjort), Velten 1907 (Swahili). For further references to works currently considered 
relevant, see introductions to Chatelain 1894, Jacottet 1908; also Seidel 1896, Basset 1903. 


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32 Oral Literature in Africa 

publish later. And the linguistic and missionary motive was not always so 
narrow as to exclude all interest in the wider relevance of these collections. 
A number of scholars noted the connections between their work and the 
progress in comparative studies in Europe. Bleek, for instance, significantly 
entitles his collection of Hottentot stories Reynard the Fox in South Africa, to 
bring out the parallelism between African and European tales. Although 
at first some people refused to believe that tales of such striking similarity 
to European folk-stories and fairy-tales could really be indigenous to 
Africa, this similarity of content gradually became accepted. By the end 
of the century, Chatelain could assert with confidence in his authoritative 
survey that many myths, characters, and incidents known elsewhere also 
occur in African narratives, and that African folklore is thus a 'branch of 
one universal tree'. 5 The cultural implications of these collections were not 
lost on their editors. There was a general recognition, often accompanied 
by some slight air of surprise, that the negro too was capable of producing 
works which manifested depth of feeling and artistry and showed him to 
be human in the fullest sense of the word. Both the climate of opinion to 
which he felt he had to address himself and his own conclusions on the 
basis of his study of the language come out clearly in the preface to the 
early work by Koelle, African Native Literature, or Proverbs, Tales, Fables and 
Historical Fragments in the Kanuri or Bornu Language, published in 1854. It 
is illuminating to quote this eloquent and early statement at some length: 

It is hoped that the publication of these first specimens of a Kanuri literature 
will prove useful in more than one way. Independently of the advantages it 
offers for a practical acquaintance with the language, it also introduces the 
reader, to some extent, into the inward world of Negro mind and Negro 
thoughts, and this is a circumstance of paramount importance, so long as 
there are any who either flatly negative the question, or, at least, consider 
it still open, 'whether the Negroes are a genuine portion of mankind or 
not'. It is vain to speculate on this question from mere anatomical facts, 
from peculiarities of the hair, or the colour of the skin: if it is mind that 
distinguishes man from animals, the question cannot be decided without 
consulting the languages of the Negroes; for language gives the expression 
and manifestation of the mind. Now as the Grammar proves that Negro 
languages are capable of expressing human thoughts, —some of them, 
through their rich formal development, even with an astonishing precision— so 
specimens like the following 'Native Literature' show that the Negroes 
actually have thoughts to express, that they reflect and reason about things 

5 Chatelain 1894, p. 20. 


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2. The Perception of African Oral Literature 33 

just as other men. Considered in such a point of view, these specimens may 
go a long way towards refuting the old-fashioned doctrine of an essential 
inequality of the Negroes with the rest of mankind, which now and then 
still shows itself not only in America but also in Europe (Chatelain 1894: 20. 
Chatelain's introduction gives an excellent summary of the publications and 
conclusions on African oral literature to that date). 

By the end of the century the same point could be stated more dogmatically 
and succinctly; as Seidel has it in his description of the impact of African 
oral literature, 'Und alle sahen mit Erstaunen, dass der Neger denkt und 
fult, wie wir selbst.denken und fuhlen'; (Seidel 1896: 3) but the point has been 
made— and often with a similar air of discovery— at intervals ever since. 6 

The appreciation of the cultural relevance of the collected texts was taken 
further by the emerging tradition that a general study of any African people 
could suitably include a section on their unwritten literature. Even in the 
nineteenth century some general volumes appeared in which the literary 
creations of African peoples were set in the context of their life in general. 7 

One of the striking contributions of these early collectors— missionaries, 
linguists, ethnographers— is the frequent recognition that the texts they 
recorded could be truly regarded as a type of literature, fundamentally 
analogous to the written fiction, history, and poetry of European nations. 
This point is worth making. Recent scholars of the subject too often give 
the impression that they are the first to recognize the true nature of these 
texts as literature (although it must indeed be admitted that not only has it 
been difficult for this approach to gain popular acceptance, but for much 
of this century it has for various reasons been overlooked by professional 
students of Africa). Many of those working in this field in the nineteenth 
century, however, were quite clear on the point. The term 'literature' 
appears in the titles of books or sections, 8 and Chatelain expressed a fairly 
common attitude among collectors when he stressed the importance of 
studying 'their unwritten, oral literature'. (1894: 16). 9 One of the earliest 
clear statements is that of Bleek in the preface to his famous collection of 
Namaqa Hottentot tales. These fables, he writes, form 

See e.g. McLaren 1917: 332 ('how human the Bantu peoples are!'); Smith and Dale ii, 
1920: 345 ('man's common human-heartedness is in these tales . . . across the abysses we 
can clasp hands in a common humanity'); Junod 1938: 57 ('proof that the Umuntu has a 
soul, and that under his black skin beats a genuine human heart . . .', cf. p. 83); etc. 
e.g. Macdonald 1882 (Yao), Ellis, 1890 (Ewe) 1894 (Yoruba). 
e.g. Koelle 1854; Macdonald 1882, i, Ch. 2 and pp. 47-57. 

Cf. also Burton 1865, pp. xiiff; M. Kingsley in introduction to Dennett 1898, p. ix; Seidel 
1896 (introduction); Cronise and Ward 1903, p. 4. 


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34 Oral Literature in Africa 

[an] extensive . . . mass of traditionary Native literature amongst the 
Namaqa .... The fact of such a literary capacity existing among a nation 
whose mental qualifications it has been usual to estimate at the lowest 
standard, is of the greatest importance; and that their literary activity . . . has 
been employed almost in the same direction as that which had been taken by 
our own earliest literature, is in itself of great significance (Bleek 1864: xii-xiii). 

By the end of the century, then, the subject was fairly well recognized by a 
limited group of scholars. A certain amount had been both recorded and 
published— in special collections, in general surveys of particular peoples, 
and as appendices and illustrations in grammatical works. Though few 
were working in this field, they tended to be in touch and to be aware of 
each other's research, so that by the 1890s serious comparative and general 
accounts could be produced, drawing on the published works of others. 10 
It is true that a certain air of condescension was at times discernible; but 
this attitude in fact often seems less noticeable in these nineteenth-century 
sources than in many produced later. There was a general appreciation 
of the cultural implications of the studies: the fact that Africa could no 
longer be treated as an area totally without its own cultural traditions, 
that these could be looked at comparatively in the context of European as 
well as of African studies, and, finally, that the texts recorded by linguists, 
missionaries, and others could be treated as at least analogous to parallel 
written forms. Needless to say, this more liberal approach met with little 
popular recognition. The works were obscurely published and intended 
for specialist reading, and— perhaps even more important— the common 
myth that saw the African as uncultivated and un-literary was too firmly 
established to allow for easy demolition. 11 But at least among a small group 
of scholars, in particular the German and English linguists, there was a 
sense that the subject had been established as one worthy of study and one 
which had even made a certain amount of progress. 

This serious interest was consolidated by the group of German scholars 
working together towards the end of the nineteenth and during the 
first decades of the twentieth century— and also, to a lesser extent, later. 
Linguistic studies were considered to include African languages, and a 
series of specialist journals were published, some short-lived, others still 
continuing today, in which systematic work on various aspects of African 

10 e.g. Chatelain's introductory sections in 1894 and Seidel's general survey in 1896. Cf. also 
Jacottet 1908 (introduction). 

11 See Curtin 1965: 397. 


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2. The Perception of African Oral Literature 35 

languages, including oral literature, appeared. 12 University chairs were 
established in Bantu or African languages (at Hamburg and Berlin) before 
any similar appointments in the English-speaking academic world. 13 The 
linguistic interests of these scholars were by no means strictly limited to 
grammatical or syntactical analysis, but included both the recording of 
literary texts and a general appreciation of African literature as a suitable 
object of scholarship. Comparative surveys appeared which, though in 
some respects dated, are still among the best available. 14 Drawing on the 
various published sources for African texts (both large and small), the 
authors called attention to the literary status of many of them, and pointed 
not only to the obvious prose forms recorded from Africa but also — a far 
less common recognition even now — to the various categories of poetry. 
Seidel, for instance, lists love songs, satirical songs, war songs, epic, dirges, 
religious songs, and didactic poems as among African literary forms, and 
even makes some attempt to discuss their formal structure (1896: 8ff.). To 
this general recognition of the subject was added a tradition of systematic 
empirical research. The extension of the German empire further stimulated 
the interest in African studies, and many texts were recorded and analysed 
by scholars publishing in German, above all in the areas under German 
rule— South-West Africa, German East Africa (covering Tanganyika and 
Ruanda-Urundi), Kamerun, and Togo. 15 Between them these collectors 
recorded or discussed such forms as prose narratives, proverbs, riddles, 
names, drum literature, and, more unusually in the subject as a whole, 
different kinds of poems and songs, sometimes accompanied by the 

12 Zeitschrift fur afrikanische Sprachen (Berlin, 1887-90), edited by C. G. Buttner; Zeitschrifl 
fin- afrikanische und oceanische Sprachen (Berlin, 1895-1903), edited by A. Seidel; Zeitschrifl 
fur Kolonial-Sprachen (Berlin), founded in 1910 and, under its present title of Afrika und 
Ubersee, still in continuation (at some periods entitled Zeitschrift fur Eingeborenen-Sprachen). 
Material on African literature is also included in Mitteilungen des Seminars fur orientalische 
Sprachen zu Berlin (1989-), Zeitschrift fur Ethnologic (Berlin, 1869-), and Anthropos (Salzburg, 
Vienna, and Fribourg, 1906-); cf. also Mitteilungen des Instituts fur Orientforschung 
(Berlin, 1953-). 

13 Pointed out by McLaren 1917: 330. Especially Seidel 1896, Meinhof 1911. 

14 Especially Seidel 1896, Meinhof 1911. 

15 See, among many others, Buttner 1888; Gutmann 1914, 1928, also 1909 and 1927, etc.; 
A. Seidel, 'Sprichworter der Wa-Bondei in Deutsch-Ostafrika', ZAOS 4, 1898; 5, 1900, 
etc.; von Hornbostel 1909; Fuchs 1910; E. Bufe 1914; Hecklinger 1920/1; Ebding 1938 (not 
seen); and, with Ittmann 1955, 1956; Bender (not seen); Witte 1906, etc. (Ewe); Spiess 
1918a, 1918b, 1919; Hartter 1902. German scholars also worked on Hausa and Kanuri in 
Northern Nigeria, e.g. Prietze 1904, 1916a, 1916b, 1917, 1918, 1927. 1931 (Hausa), 1914 
(Kanuri), also 1915, 1930; Lukas 1935, 1937 (Kanuri). See also some of the collections 
mentioned above. 


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36 Oral Literature in Africa 

recording and analysis of the music, in keeping with the early German 
interest in ethnomusicology 16 

Figure 6. 'Jellemen' praise singers and drummers, Sierra Leone (Alexander 
Gordon Laing Travels in the Timmannee, Kooranko and Soolima Countries, 1825). 

As far as the sheer provision of basic sources goes, these German collections 
are among the most valuable, and their number and quality seem 
surprisingly underestimated by recent English-speaking writers. Even 
though their interests were primarily linguistic, and more purely literary 
or social aspects were little pursued, they established the subject as one 
worthy of serious study (thus demanding systematic empirical research) 
and recognized that the texts they recorded were a form of literature. 

In the first couple of decades of the twentieth century the study of African 
oral literature could in some ways be said to have reached its peak as a 
recognized and closely studied academic subject. Then German interest in 
Africa waned with the loss of their imperial interests; a number of valuable 
studies continued to be made by German writers and to appear in scholarly 
German journals, 17 but there was no longer the same stimulus to research 

16 See discussion of this school in Nettl 1956, Ch. 3. 

17 e.g. the work by Ittmann and Ebding on Duala and other Cameroons languages, or 
Dammann on Swahili; cf . also the rather different series of publications by Frobenius 1921-8. 

Oral Literature in Africa.indd 36 


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2. The Perception of African Oral Literature 37 

and the solid foundations laid earlier were hardly built upon. To some 
extent the place of the Germans was taken by the South African linguistic 
school, where there is a strong tradition of informed research in a wide 
sense; 18 and Werner's work in England also resulted in some contact being 
kept between the German linguistic tradition and the very much weaker 
English school. 19 But in general German linguists became isolated from the 
French and English professional scholars who were now coming to the fore 
in African studies, concentrating more on aspects of social institutions than 
on linguistic matters. Much of the earlier ground was therefore lost, and 
until very recently the study of African oral literature has been relatively 
neglected as a subject of research in its own right. 


Various factors have contributed to the relative lack of interest in oral 
literature in this century. To understand these, it is necessary to include 
some account of the history of anthropology, for during much of the 
first half of the twentieth century it was anthropologists who tended to 
monopolize the professional study of African institutions and culture. 
The various assumptions of anthropology in this period both directed 
research into particular fields and also dictated the selection of texts and 
the particular form in which they were to be recorded. 

A number of the theories that held sway at this time were almost fatal 
to the serious study of oral literature. This so far had fortunately been free 
from over-speculative theorizing, for in spite of the dominance in some 
circles of Muller's particular theories of 'comparative mythology', they 
seem to have had little effect on studies in the field; the general interest in 

18 Cf. The early university recognition of African languages ad Bantu studies generally and 
in particular the influence of C. M. Doke, famous both a linguist and as collector and 
analyst of oral literature. The south Afircan journal Bantu Studies, later entitled African 
Studies (Johannesburg 1921-) is one of the best sources for scholarly and well-informed 
articles in English on oral literature (mainly but exclusively that of southern Africa). On 
the contribution of south African Universitie to linguistic studies see Doke in Bantu 
Studies 7, 1933, pp. 26-8. 

19 Till recently, not very developed in England, especially as concerns the oral literature 
aspect. The School of Oriental Studies (later Oriental and African Studies) of the 
University of London, founded in 1916, was the main centre of what African linguistic 
studies there were, but in the early years the African side was little stressed. Some of 
the better of the articles on African oral literature produced in English on oral literature 
(mainly but not exclusively that of southern Africa) . On the contribution of South African 
universities to linguistic studies see Doke in Bantu Studies 7, 1933, pp. 26-8. 


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38 Oral Literature in Africa 

comparison had thus acted more as a stimulus than as a strait jacket. But the 
rise first of the evolutionist and diffusionist schools and later of the British 
structural-functional approach resulted in certain definite limitations being 
placed on the study of oral art. 20 

The evolutionist approach to the study of society so influential in the 
later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, was a complex movement 
that took many different forms. Its central tenets, however, were clear. 
They included the belief in the concept of unilinear and parallel stages 
of social and cultural evolution through which all societies must pass; 
a concentration on the origins of any institution as being of the first 
importance; and, finally, the implicit and evaluative assumption that the 
direction of evolution was upwards— a progress from the crude communal 
stage of primitive life towards the civilized and differentiated culture of 
contemporary Europe. Speculative pseudo-history and totally unverified 
assumption were asserted as proven fact. Many generalizations too were 
authoritatively pronounced about how 'primitive man must have felt' or 
'probably imagined', which drew on little more evidence than the writer's 
own introspection or his belief that what he most valued in his own, 
civilized, society were just those elements surely lacking in primitive life. 
'Primitive', furthermore, was interpreted to mean both early in history (or 
prehistory) and low and undeveloped generally in the scale of evolution. 
The stage of development attained by non-literate peoples could thus be 
equated and evaluated as the same as that once traversed by the prehistoric 
ancestors of European nations. 

This approach clearly has implications for the study of oral literature and 
in the early twentieth century these were increasingly explored, mainly by 
scholars writing in England. 21 The concentration was on the idea of origins 
and evolution: questions asked (and confidently answered) concerned 
which type of literature came first in the prehistory of man, the survivals 
into the present of more primitive stages of life and culture in the form of 

20 For a fuller discussion of the effect of these theories on the interpretation of prose 
narratives, see Ch. 12. 

21 e.g. such general works as J. A. MacCulloch The Childhood of Fiction: a Study of Folk 
Tales and Primitive Thought (1905), G. L. Gomme Folklore as an Historical Science (1908), 
A. S. MacKenzie The Evolution of Literature (1911 — quite a perceptive account, in spite 
of its evolutionist framework, including some treatment of African oral literature), 
E. S. Hartland The Science of Fairy Tales (1891), J. G. Frazer Folklore in the Old Testament 
(1918), and (in some respects a later survival of evolutionist assumptions) Bowra 1962. 
Though the detailed theories differ considerably, all share the same basically evolutionist 


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2. The Perception of African Oral Literature 39 

'folk literature' or 'folk-lore', and the supposed nature of the early primitive 
stage, still allegedly that of present-day 'savages'. 

Current preconceptions about the nature both of oral literature and 
of primitive society could be fitted into this conceptual framework. 
Such literature was, for instance, supposed to be the work of communal 
consciousness and group authorship rather than, as in civilized 
communities, of an individual inspired artist; it was handed down word 
for word 'from the dim before-time' or 'far back ages', for no individual 
creativity or imagination could be expected of primitive peoples; it was 
basically similar among all peoples at the same stage of evolution, so that 
one could generalize about, say, 'the primitive' or 'the African' without 
having to consider the particular history or culture of a given area, much 
less the individual composer; and finally, although it might ultimately 
evolve into something higher, at the moment such oral literature was 
radically different from that of higher civilizations with their emphasis on 
originality, innovation, and the written word. The exact stage assigned to 
various non-literate peoples varied, but there was general agreement that 
most African peoples belonged to an early and low stage, and that their art, 
if any, would be correspondingly primitive. They were variously described 
as dominated by the idea of magic, by totemism, or by their failure to 
distinguish between themselves and the animal world round them. And 
all these ideas could be presumed to come out in their oral literature or 

These theories were not in fact often applied in detail to African oral 
literature. Nevertheless, they had a direct effect on its study. First, the 
evolutionist movement gave an apparently 'scientific' validation to certain 
current prejudices about the nature of oral art which naturally affected the 
attitude of those working in the field (and has to some extent continued to do 
so, particularly among those with little first-hand knowledge of unwritten 
literature). 22 It has also dictated the selection of oral literature recorded or 
the kind of interpretation thought suitable. Because such oral literature was 
'communal', for instance, variant forms were not recorded or looked for and 
no questions were raised about individual authorship, which was presumed 
not to exist. Because items of oral literature could also be regarded as 

22 And not just those. See, for example, the contradictions Cope runs into in his otherwise 
excellent treatment of Zulu praise poetry because of his assumption (undiscussed) that 
'traditional literature' must be due to 'communal activity' (compare pp. 24 and 33, also 
pp. 53-4, in Cope 1968). 


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40 Oral Literature in Africa 

'survivals' of yet more primitive stages, an acceptable interpretation would 
be in terms of hypothetical earlier customs, such as 'primitive matriarchy' or 
'totemism', rather than of its literary effectiveness or acceptability. Because 
primitive tribes were supposed to be preoccupied with tradition rather 
than innovation, 'traditional' tales were sought and 'new' ones ignored or 
explained away. Because interest was focused on broad evolutionary stages, 
few questions were asked about the idiosyncratic history, culture, or literary 
conventions of a particular people. Finally because origins and early history 
assumed such importance in people's minds, there was little emphasis on 
the contemporary relevance of a piece of literature, so there seemed every 
excuse for collecting and publishing bits and pieces without attempting 
to relate them to their particular social and literary context. The interest of 
anthropologists was turned away from the systematic collection or analysis 
of detailed literary texts and concentrated on generalized theory. 

The main outlines and many of the details of this approach are now 
rejected by the majority of professional anthropologists as either false or 
unproven. But as it was not just a matter of esoteric academic interest but a 
reflection and apparent validation of many popular views, its rejection by 
professionals by no means implies the end of its influence. Many of these 
assumptions can still be found in the writings of non-anthropologists, in 
particular among some of the self-styled English 'folklorists'. They have 
also been lent apparent support by the actual selection and treatment of 
societies presented to the public. 

By the 1930s anthropologists were turning to more empirical and first- 
hand studies of African societies, with the consequent promise of more 
systematic collection of oral literature. The so-called structural-functional 
school of British anthropology, associated in its most rigid form with 
the name of Radcliffe-Brown, concentrated on function, in particular on 
the function of stabilizing or validating the current order of things. This 
approach was naturally applied to literature as to other social data. The 
idea that certain types of oral literature could have a utilitarian role 
was, of course, not new (e.g. Van Gennep 1910); nor was the related but 
more extreme hypothesis that, in contrast to the idea of 'art for art's sake' 
supposedly characteristic of civilized nations, the oral literatures of Africa 
had a severely practical rather than aesthetic aim. But, while chiming in 
with these notions, structural-functional anthropology took a particular 
form of its own. Its central theoretical interest was, at root, the functional 
integration and maintenance of society: and items of oral literature were 
regarded as relevant only in so far as they could be fitted into this framework. 


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2. The Perception of African Oral Literature 41 

The fact that this approach has till recently held sway among British 
anthropologists — those who in other spheres have made the greatest 
contribution to the empirical study of African institutions— has several 
implications for the study of oral literature. Most important is the implicit 
assumption that oral literature is not worthy of study as a subject in its own 
right and that it can be ignored except for passing references which fit in 
with a particular interpretation of society. The result is that over the last 
generation or so practically no collections or analyses of oral literature have 
been made by British scholars. When oral literature was mentioned, the 
fashion was to play down the aesthetic aspect in favour of the functional 
and to stress 'traditional' material even to the extent of sometimes refusing 
to record anything that seemed to smack of innovation. Prose narrative 
was more often referred to than sung poetry since it was easier to make a 
quick record of it and since it was more suitable, particularly in the form 
of 'myths', for use in functional analysis. Altogether the emphasis was on 
brief synopsis or paraphrase rather than a detailed recording of literary 
forms as actually delivered. The well-known British tradition of empirical 
and painstaking field work in Africa has therefore borne little fruit in the 
field of oral literature. And the dominance of this functional approach, 
following on the more speculative evolutionist framework of earlier years, 
helps to explain why the study of oral literature has made so little progress 
in this century. 

The interest in diffusion— the geographical spread of items of material 
and non-material culture— has also had its repercussions. In both the 
nineteenth and the twentieth centuries, curiosity about the geographical 
origin and subsequent history of particular stories encountered in different 
parts of the world has been considerable. This has been most specifically 
expressed in the Scandinavian or 'historical-geographical' school of 
folklore, which for much of this century has been trying to discover the 'life 
history' of stories of various kinds, by means of systematic classification 
and an elaborate indexing of comparative references. 23 This approach is 
also prevalent in America, where it has to some extent blended with the 
less ambitious and more liberal diffusionist approaches pioneered by 

23 e.g. Thompson 1955-8 for the best-known general reference work and, for African material, 
Klipple 1938 and Clarke 1958. Detailed comparative analyses of particular motifs or 
plots from African materials, mainly published in Uppsala (Studia ethnographica 
Upsaliensia), include Abrahamsson 1951; Tegnaeus 1950; Dammann 1961. Cf. also the 
South African branch of this school, e.g. Hattingh 1944 (AA 5. 356); Mofokeng 1955. 


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42 Oral Literature in Africa 

Boas and his followers. 24 It has had relatively few adherents in Britain, 
largely because of the dominance of the theories just described, but it has 
had some wider influence through its association with the international 
folklore movement. 25 

The main consequence of these diffusionist approaches was the focusing 
of interest on the subject-matter of oral literature — for it is this that must 
be considered when attempting to trace its historical and geographical 
diffusion. 26 Detailed investigations of the actual social and literary role 
of forms of oral literature in particular cultures were thus not called 
for. Similarly there was no onus on collectors to provide laborious and 
detailed transcriptions when all that was needed was a synopsis of the 
content: unskilled assistants could be employed to write down 'texts' and 
summaries. The emphasis was naturally on prose tales whose motifs could 
be traced, and once again attention was focused away from poetry. 

As a result of these varied theories there was a turning away from the 
more systematic and empirical foundations laid earlier in the century 
towards a more limited approach to the subject. Different as the theories are 
in other respects, they all share the characteristics of playing down interest 
in the detailed study of particular oral literatures and, where such forms 
are not ignored altogether, emphasize the bare outline of content without 
reference to the more subtle literary and personal qualities. In many cases, 
the main stress is on the 'traditional' and supposed static forms, above 
all on prose rather than poetry. The detailed and systematic study of oral 
literature in its social and literary context has thus languished for much of 
this century. 

This is not to say that there were no worthwhile studies made during 
this period. A number of gifted writers have produced valuable studies, 
often the fruit of long contacts with a particular culture and area, 27 and 
many short reports have appeared in various local journals. But with the 
exception of a handful of American scholars and of the well-founded South 

24 Cf. Boas's early works on (mainly American-Indian) oral literature, and more recent 
work relevant to Africa by Herskovits (1936 and 1958) and Bascom (1964, etc.). Some of 
the best collections of African literature have been published by the American Folk-lore 
Society (Chatelain 1894, Doke 1927). 

25 Cf . Thompson 1946, pp. 396ff. 

26 Cf. the excellent critical accounts of this approach in von Sydow 1948, M. Jacobs 1966. 

27 e.g. Equilbecq 1913-16, Junod 1912-13, Smith and Dale 1920, Rattray 1930, etc., Green 
1948, Carrington 1949b, etc., Verger 1957. Cf. also the mammoth general survey by the 
Chadwicks (1932-40). 


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2. The Perception of African Oral Literature 43 

African school, 28 most of these writers tended to work in isolation, their 
work not fully appreciated by scholars. 

Another apparent exception to this general lack of concern with oral 
literature was the French interest associated with the nigritude movement 
and the journal (and later publishing house) Presence africaine. 29 But this, 
though profoundly important in influencing general attitudes to African 
art, was primarily a literary and quasi-political movement rather than a 
stimulus to exact recording or analysis. It rests on a mystique of 'black 
culture', and a rather glamorized and general view is put forward of the 
moral value or literary and psychological depth of both African traditional 
literature and its contemporary counterparts in written form. Thus, though 
a few excellent accounts have been elicited under the auspices of this 
movement, mainly by local African scholars, 30 many of its publications 
are somewhat undependable as detailed contributions to the study of oral 
literature. Its romanticizing attitudes apart, however, this school has had the 
excellent effect of drawing interest back to the literary significance of these 
forms (including, this time, poetry). But it cannot be said that this interest 
did very much to reverse the general trend away from the recognition of 
African oral literature as a serious field of scholarship. 

By the late 1950s and 1960s, however, the situation started to change. 
There was a rapidly increasing interest in African studies as a whole, 
expressed both in the recognition of Africa as a worthwhile field of 
academic study and in a marked proliferation of professional scholars 
concerned with different aspects of African life. Work became increasingly 
specialist. With the new boom in African studies, those who before were 
working in an isolated and limited way, or in only a local or amateur 
context, found their work gradually recognized. Some of the earlier work 
was taken up again, 31 and the interests of certain professional students of 
Africa widened— not least those of British anthropologists, who for long 
had held a near monopoly in African studies but who were now turning to 

28 See particularly the many publications of Doke, and a series of valuable articles in Bantu 
Studies (later African Studies); there are also a number of as yet unpublished theses 
(especially Mofokeng 1955). 

29 Paris, 1947-; cf . also many articles in Black Orpheus and some in the various IFAN journals; 
Senghor 1951, etc.; and generalized descriptions such as that in Jahn 1961, Ch. 5. 

30 e.g. A. Hampate Ba (Bambara and Fulani), G. Adali-Mortti (Ewe), Lasebikan (Yoruba), 
perhaps A. Kagame (Ruanda); cf. also the more general accounts by Colin 1957, Traore 

31 Notably the Chadwicks' great comparative study of oral literature which had previously 
had surprisingly little impact on African studies. 


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44 Oral Literature in Africa 

previously neglected fields. The result has been some renewal of interest in 
African oral literature, though— unlike most branches of African studies— it 
can hardly yet be said to have become consolidated as a systematic field of 

To mention all the contributory streams in the present increasing interest 
in African verbal art would be tedious and nearly impossible. But certain of 
the main movements are worth mentioning, not least because each tends 
to have its own preconceptions and methods of research, and because in 
several cases groups are out of touch with others working on the same 
basic subject from a different viewpoint. 

The musicologists represent a very different approach from all those 
mentioned previously. Though their primary interest is, of course, musical, 
this involves the recording and study of innumerable songs— that is, from 
another point of view, of poetry. It is true that the words of songs are not 
always recorded or published with the same meticulous care as the music 
itself. But in a number of cases the words do appear, and this approach 
has had the invaluable effect of drawing attention to the significance of 
poetic forms so neglected in most other approaches. The musicologists 
furthermore have provided a much needed corrective to earlier emphases 
on the traditional rather than the new and topical, by giving some idea of 
the great number of ephemeral and popular songs on themes of current 
interest. The African Music Society in particular, centred in Johannesburg, 
has built up a systematic and scholarly body of knowledge of African music, 
mainly that of southern and central Africa but with interests throughout the 
continent. Its main stimulus has come from Hugh Tracey, who has taken an 
interest in oral art as well as music for many years (e.g. Tracey 1929, 1933, 
1948b), but its activities are now finding a wider audience not least through 
its issue of large numbers of records in the Music of Africa series. 32 Altogether 
it can be said that the musicologists, and above all the African Music Society, 
have done more both to co-ordinate scientific study and to publicize the 
results in the field of sung oral literature than any other group in this century. 

Another significant contribution is that made by a small group of 
American anthropologists working closely together, and publishing much 

32 See its journal, African Music (1954-), and the earlier Newsletter (1948-); a library of African 
music has been built up in Johannesburg; cf . also the work of such scholars as Rhodes and 
Merriam, and various publications in the journal Etlmomusicohgy. Other musicologists less 
closely associated with this school but carrying out similar studies include A. M. Jones, 
Rouget, Nketia, Blacking, Belinga, Carrington, Rycroft, Wachsmann, and Zemp. 


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2. The Perception of African Oral Literature 45 

of their work in the Journal of American Folklore, an academic publication 
which has taken an increasing interest in Africa in recent years. 33 There has 
always been a tradition of serious interest in oral literature among American 
anthropologists, 34 unlike the British, but this has recently gained further 
momentum and there are now a number of American scholars engaged 
in the serious study of African oral art. 35 Their main field of interest is the 
southerly part of West Africa and they seem to have less acquaintance with 
the work, say, of the South African school; but their general aspiration 
is to establish the study of oral literature over the continent as a whole. 
This group has to some extent been influenced by the contributions of the 
historical-geographical school, but takes a wider approach and, consonant 
with its anthropological interests, is concerned not only to record oral art 
(including poetry) but also to relate it to its social context rather than just 
analyse and classify the types and motifs of narrative. They point out the 
importance of considering individual inspiration and originality as well 
as the 'traditional' 'tribal' conventions, the role of poet and audience as 
well as subject matter. Though they have not always managed to pursue 
these topics very far in practice, the points they make about the direction 
of further research are so valid and, at the same time, so unusual in the 
study of African oral literature that this group assumes an importance in 
the subject out of all proportion to its size. 

Some of the most original work has come from the growing numbers 
of Africans carrying out scholarly analyses of oral literature in their own 
languages. These writers have been able to draw attention to many aspects 
which earlier students tended to overlook either because of their theoretical 
preconceptions or because they were, after all, strangers to the culture 
they studied. Writers like Kagame on Rwanda poetry, Babalola on Yoruba 
hunters' songs, or, outstanding in the field, Nketia on many branches of 
Akan music and literature, have been able to explore the overtones and 
imagery that play so significant a part in their literature and to add depth 
through their descriptions of the social and literary context. They have 

33 Some of their work also appears in the main anthropological journals in America. 

34 e.g. the well-known work of anthropologists like Boas, Benedict, or Reichard (mainly on 
American Indian peoples), and more recently Herskovits on Africa and elsewhere. See 
also the general discussion in Greenway 1964. 

35 See especially the bibliographic and other survey articles by Bascom, who is probably 
doing more than any other single scholar at the present to consolidate the subject as a 
recognized branch of scholarship, e.g. Bascom 1964, 1965a, 19656; cf. also Herskovits 
1958, 1961, etc.; Messenger 1959, 1960, 1962; Simmons 1958, 1960a, etc. Berry's useful 
survey of West African spoken art (1961) draws largely on the findings of this group. 


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46 Oral Literature in Africa 

been among the few scholars to pay serious and detailed attention to the 
role of the poet, singer, or narrator himself. Not all such writers, it is true, 
have been saved even by their close intimacy with language and culture 
from some of the less happy assumptions of earlier generalizing theorists. 
But with the general recognition in many circles of African studies as a 
worthwhile field of research, an increasing number of local scholars are 
both turning to detailed and serious analysis of their own oral literature 
and beginning to find some measure of encouragement for publication of 
their results. 36 And it is from this direction above all that we can expect the 
more profound and detailed analyses of particular oral forms to come. 37 

Other groups or individuals need only be mentioned briefly; many of 
them have mainly localized or idiosyncratic interests. The strong South 
African school has already been mentioned and continues to take an interest 
in oral literature (both prose and intoned praise poetry) in Bantu Africa 
as a whole. In the Congo a number of scholars have for some years been 
working closely together, though relatively little in touch with the work 
of other groups. They tend to concentrate on the provision and analysis 
of texts, some on a large scale, but with perhaps rather less concern for 
social background and imaginative qualities; there have, however, been 
a few striking studies on style, particularly on the significance of tone 
(e.g. Van Avermaet 1955). Swahili studies too continue to expand, mainly 
focused, however, on traditional written forms, with less interest in oral 
literature. Traditional written literature in African languages generally is 
gaining more recognition as a field of academic research; strictly, this topic 
is outside the scope of this book, but is none the less relevant for its impact 
on attitudes to indigenous African literature as a whole. 

Oral literature, like any other, has been and is subject to all the rising 
and falling fashions in the criticism and interpretation of literature and the 
human mind. Thus with African literature too we have those who interpret 
it in terms of, for instance, its relevance for psychological expression, 38 
'structural characteristics' beyond the obvious face value of the literature 

36 That this has not yet gone as far as it might is shown by the very limited recognition of 
the material of so original a scholar as Nketia, much of whose work has appeared only 
in local publications. 

37 These local scholars include, to mention only a selection, Lasebikan (Yoruba), Abimbola 
(Yoruba), Owuor (alias Anyumba) (Luo), Mofokeng (Sotho), Nyembezi (Zulu), Hampate 
Ba (Fulani), Adali-Mortti (Ewe), Okot (Acholi and Lango). 

38 E.g. the somewhat Freudian approaches in Rattray 1930 and Herskovits 1934, or Radin's 
more Jungian turn (1952, etc.). 


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2. The Perception of African Oral Literature 47 

(sometimes of the type that could be fed into computers), its social 
functions, 39 or, finally and most generalized of all, its 'mythopoeic' and 
profoundly meaningful nature. 40 All these multifarious approaches, to oral 
as to written literature, can only be a healthy sign, even though at present 
there are the grave drawbacks of both lack of reliable material and lack of 
contact between the various schools. 

All this has had its effect on the older established disciplines within 
African studies. The linguists, for instance, who have in any case been 
taking an increasingly systematic interest in Africa recently, have been 
widening their field to include a greater appreciation of the literary 
aspect of their studies. 41 The British social anthropologists, influenced 
by increasing contacts with colleagues in France and America and by 
co-operation with linguists, are also beginning to take a wider view of 
their subject, 42 and French scholars too have recently produced a number 
of detailed and imaginative studies. 43 Besides these direct studies, there is 
a growing awareness by other groups of the significance of oral literature 
as an ancillary discipline: historians discuss its reliability as a historical 
source, creative writers turn to it for inspiration, governments recognize its 
relevance for propaganda or as a source in education. 44 Much of this does 
not, perhaps, amount to systematic study of the literature as such— but it 
at least reflects an increasing recognition of its existence. 

39 An extension both of the functionalist school mentioned earlier and of the 'structuralist' 
approach; see e.g. Beidelman 1961, 1963 (and a number of other articles on the same 

40 See the influential and controversial article by C. Levi-Strauss, 'The Structural Study of 
Myth', JAF 68, 1955 (not directly concerned with African oral literature but intended to 
cover it among others); also Dundes 1962; Hamnett 1967. For a useful critique of this 
approach see Jacobs 1966. 

41 Cf. e.g. Arnott 1957, Berry 1961, Andrzejewski 1965, etc., Whiteley 1964, and other work 
under the auspices of the School of Oriental and African Studies in the university of 

42 The Oxford Library of African Literature, for instance, (mainly devoted two oral 
literature) is edited by two anthropologists and a linguist. 

43 Notably de Dampierre, Lacroix, and others in the new Classiques africains series; cf. also 
a number of excellent studies in the journal Cahiers d'etudes africaines (Paris, I960-) and 
the Unesco series of African texts which has involved the collaboration of a number 
of scholars, many of them French. As this type of approach interacts with the already 
established tradition of Islamic and Arabic scholarship in parts of Africa, we may expect 
further interesting studies in these areas. This has already happened to some extent for 
indigenous written literature (see e.g. Lacroix 1965, Sow 1966 on Fulani poetry). 

44 See especially Vansina 1965, and the general interest in recording texts for primarily 
historical purposes, e.g. the series of Central Bantu Historical Texts (Rhodes-Livingstone 
Institute, Lusaka). 


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48 Oral Literature in Africa 

T V> 

^^■- t v. : : =m: V,.-. ; 

■ ..' "■'■ -'■■ 

Figure 7. 'Evangelist points the way'. Illustration by C. J. Montague of 

'Christian' being given directions by a white missionary (with clothes to 

match), a favourite motif in late nineteenth and early twentieth-century 

perceptions. From the Ndebele edition of Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, 1902. 

There are, then, growing signs of a fuller appreciation of the extent and nature 
of African oral literature. But even now it is only beginning to be established 
as a systematic and serious field of study which could co-ordinate the efforts 
of all those now working in relative isolation. The desultory and uneven 
nature of the subject still reflects many of the old prejudices, and even recent 
studies have failed to redress the inherited over-emphasis on bare prose 
texts at the expense of poetry, or provide any close investigation of the role 
of composer/poet and the social and literary background. The idea is still all 
too prevalent— even in some of the better publications— that even if such 

Oral Literature in Africa.indd 48 


8/28/12 12:58 PM 


2. The Perception of African Oral Literature 49 

literature is after all worthy of study, this can only be so in a 'traditional' 
framework. The motive, then, for the study is partly antiquarian, and haste 
is urged to collect these items before they vanish or are 'contaminated' by 
new forms. These 'new' forms, it is frequently accepted without question, 
are either not significant enough in themselves to deserve record or, if they 
are too obvious to evade notice, are 'hybrid' and somehow untypical. How 
misleading a picture this is obvious when one considers the many topical 
songs recorded by, for instance, the African Music Society, the modern forms 
of praise poems or prose narratives, oral versions embroidered on Christian 
hymns, or the striking proliferation of political songs in contemporary 
Africa— but the old assumptions are still tenacious and time after time 
dictate the selection and presentation of African oral literature with all 
the bias towards the 'traditional'. In keeping with this approach too is the 
still common idea that African literature consists mainly of rather childish 
stories, an impression strengthened by the many popular editions of African 
tales reflecting (and designed to take advantage of) this common idea. Even 
now, therefore, such literature is often presented and received with an air of 
condescension and slightly surprised approval for these supposedly naive 
and quaint efforts. Most prevalent of all, perhaps, and most fundamental for 
the study of African oral literature is the hidden feeling that this is not really 
literature at all: that these oral forms may, perhaps, fulfil certain practical or 
ritual functions in that supposedly odd context called 'tribal life', but that 
they have no aesthetic claims, for either local people or the visiting scholar, 
to be considered as analogous to proper written literature, let alone on a 
par with it. The idea continues to hold ground that it is radically different 
from real (i.e. written) literature and should even have its own distinctive 
name ('folklore' perhaps) to make this clear. The fact, however, that oral 
literature can also be considered on its own terms, and, as pointed out in 
the last chapter, may have its own artistic characteristics, analogous to but 
not always identical with more familiar literary forms, is neglected in both 
popular conceptions and detailed studies. 

The poetic, the topical, and the literary— all these, then, are aspects 
which still tend to be overlooked. It is indeed hard for those steeped in 
some of the earlier theories to take full account of them. But what the 
subject now demands is further investigation of these aspects of African 
oral art, as well as the whole range of hitherto neglected questions which 
could come under the general heading of the sociology of literature; and a 
turning away from the generalized assumptions of earlier theoretical and 
romanticizing speculators and of past (or even present) public opinion. 


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Oral Literature in Africa.indd 50 {m- 8/28/12 12:58 PM 


3. The Social, Linguistic, and 
Literary Background 

Social and literary background. The linguistic basis — the example of Bantu. Some 
literary tools. Presentation of the material. The literary complexity of African 


In Africa, as elsewhere, literature is practised in a society. It is obvious 
that any analysis of African literature must take account of the social 
and historical context— and never more so than in the case of oral 
literature. Some aspects of this are discussed in the following chapter 
on poetry and patronage and in examples in later sections. Clearly a 
full examination of any one African literature would have to include 
a detailed discussion of the particularities of that single literature 
and historical period, and the same in turn for each other instance — a 
task which cannot be attempted here. Nevertheless, in view of the 
many prevalent myths about Africa it is worth making some general 
points in introduction and thus anticipating some of the more glaring 
over-simplifications about African society. 

A common nineteenth-century notion that still has currency today is the 
idea of Africa as the same in culture in all parts of the continent (or at least 
that part south of the Sahara); as non-literate, primitive, and pagan; and as 
unchanging in time throughout the centuries. Thus 'traditional' Africa is seen 
as both uniform and static, and this view still colours much of the writing 
about Africa. 

Such a notion is, however, no longer tenable. In the late nineteenth or 
earlier twentieth centuries (the period from which a number of the instances 
here are drawn) the culture and social forms of African societies were far from 
uniform. They ranged— and to some extent still do— from the small hunting 


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52 Oral Literature in Africa 

bands of the Bushmen of the Kalahari desert, to the proud and independent 
pastoral peoples of parts of the Southern Sudan and East Africa, or the 
elaborate and varied kingdoms found in many parts of the continent, above 
all in western Africa and round the Great Lakes in the east. Such kingdoms 
provided a context in which court poetry and court poets could nourish, and 
also in some cases a well-established familiarity with Arabic literacy. Again, 
in the economic field, almost every gradation can be found from the near 
self-sufficient life of some of the hunting or pastoral peoples to the engagement 
in far-reaching external trade based on specialization, elaborate markets, and 
a type of international currency, typical of much of West Africa and the Arab 
coast of East Africa. The degree of specialization corresponding to these various 
forms has direct relevance to the position of native composers and performers 
of oral literature— in some cases leading to the possibility of expert and even 
professional poets, and of a relatively leisured and sometimes urban class to 
patronize them. In religion again, there are many different 'traditional' forms: 
the older naive pictures of Africa as uniformly given up to idol-worshipping, 
fetishes, or totemism are now recognized as totally inadequate. We find areas 
(like the northerly parts of the Sudan region and the East Coast) where Islam 
has a centuries-long history; the elaborate pantheons of West African deities 
with specialized cults and priests to match; the interest in 'Spirit' issuing in 
a special form of monotheism among some of the Nilotic peoples; the blend 
between belief in the remote position of a far off 'High God' and the close 
power of the dead ancestors in many Bantu areas— and so on. This too may 
influence the practice of oral art, sometimes providing the context and occasion 
for particular forms, sometimes the need for expert religious performers. 

In some areas we also find a long tradition of Arabic literacy and learning. 
The east coast and the Sudanic areas of West Africa have seen many centuries 
of Koranic scholarship and of specialist Arabic scribes and writers using the 
written word as a tool for correspondence, religion, and literature. To an extent 
only now being fully realized, these men were responsible for huge numbers 
of Arabic manuscripts in the form of religious treatises, historical chronicles, 
and poetry. 1 In fact, even for earlier centuries a nineteenth-century writer on 
Arabic literature in the Sudan region as a whole can sum up his work: 

On peut conclure que, pendant les XIV e , XV e et XVP siecles, la civilisation 
et les sciences florissaient au meme degre sur presque tous les points du 
continent que nous etudions; qu'il n'existe peut-etre pas une ville, pas une 
oasis, qu'elles n'aient marquee de leur empreinte ineffacable, et surtout, que 

A great number of these Arabic manuscripts have been collected and catalogued in 
recent years. See e.g. Monteil 1965-7; Hunwick 1964; Bivar and Hiskett 1962; Whitting 
1943; Kensdale 1955, 1956; Hodgkin (in Lewis 1966); Vajda 1950. 

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3. The Social, Linguistic, and Literary Background 53 

la race noire n'est pas fatalement releguee au dernier echelon de l'espece 
humaine (Cherbonneau 1856: 42) 

Not only was Arabic itself a vehicle of communication and literature, but 
many African languages in these areas came to adopt a written form using the 
Arabic script. Thus in the east we have a long tradition of literacy in Swahili 
and in the west in Hausa, Fulani, Mandingo, Kanuri, and Songhai. With the 
exception of Swahili, 2 the native written literature in these languages has not 
been very much studied, 3 but it seems to be extensive and to include historical 
and political writings in prose, theological treatises, and long religious and 
sometimes historical poems. The literary models tend to be those of Arabic 
literature, and at times paraphrase or even translation seem to have been 
involved. In other cases local literary traditions have been built up, like the 
well-established Swahili literature, less directly indebted to Arabic originals but 
still generally influenced by them in the form and subject-matter of their writings. 
In stressing the long literate tradition in certain parts of Africa, we must 
also remember that this was the preserve of the specialist few and that the 
vast majority even of those peoples whose languages adopted the Arabic 
script had no direct access to the written word. In so far as the writings of the 
scholars reached them at all, it could only be by oral transmission. Swahili 
religious poems were publicly intoned for the enlightenment of the masses 
(Harries 1962: 24), Fulani poems declaimed aloud (Lacroix i, 1965: 25), 
and Hausa compositions like 'the song of Bagaudu' (Hiskett 1954: 550) 
memorised in oral form. The situation was totally unlike the kind of mass 
literacy accompanied by the printing press with which we are more familiar. 

jliaSl o-laaj joa. ,Jijji Jba Jl jUill (j* jij 

jUjill »1U I jl iljujj (da. JJll »bs ,J jj;- - 

jl jail tjftiaj (Jj jsLJI qa jb fcSUI d!^* M M#>Q 

jj&\ 4LJi j^ V j ^1 b <jJc Cjlia. Vj 

Figure 8. Arabic script of a nineteenth-century poem in Somali (from B. W. 
Andrzejewski 'Arabic influence in Somali poetry' in Finnegan et al 2011). 

2 See the work of e.g. Werner, Dammann, Allen, Harries and Knappert. 

3 Though see recent work hy Hiskett and Paden on Hausa poetry and the production of 
various texts in Fulani (e.g. by Lacroix and Sow). 

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54 Oral Literature in Africa 

Besides Arabic forms, there are a few other instances of literate traditions in 
Africa. These include the now obsolete tifinagh script of the Berber peoples 
of North Africa, among them the Tuareg of the Sahara. Here the written 
form was probably little used for literary composition, but its existence 
gave rise to a small lettered class and the interplay between written and 
oral traditions. Most often it was the women, staying at home while the 
men travelled, who composed the outstanding panegyric, hortatory, and 
love poetry of this area. 4 More important is the long written tradition of 
Ethiopia. This is the literature of a complex and ancient civilization whose 
association with Christianity probably dates back to about the fourth 
century. Though probably never in general use, writing was used from 
an early period. It occurs particularly in a Christian context, so that the 
history of Ethiopic written literature coincides pretty closely with Christian 
literature, much of it based on translation. There are chronicles (generally 
taking the Creation of the World as their starting-point), lives of the saints, 
and liturgical verse. In addition there are royal chronicles which narrate the 
great deeds of various kings. 5 The few other minor instances of indigenous 
scripts for local languages, such as Vai, are of little or no significance for 
literature and need not be considered here. 

The common picture, then, which envisages all sub-Saharan Africa as 
totally without letters until the coming of the 'white man' is misleading. 
Above all it ignores the vast spread of Islamic and thus Arabic influences 
over many areas of Africa, profoundly affecting the culture, religion, and 
literature. It must be repeated, however, that these written traditions 
were specialist ones unaccompanied by anything approaching mass 
literacy. The resulting picture is sometimes of a split between learned (or 
written) and popular (or oral) literature. But in many other cases we find 
a peculiarly close interaction between oral and written forms. A poem first 
composed and written down, for instance, may pass into the oral tradition 

The Tuareg are marginally outside the area covered in this work and are only touched on 
in passing. For an account of their written and oral literature see Chadwicks iii, 1940: 650 
ff,and references to date given there. Among more recent works on Tuareg see Nicolas 
1944; Lhote 1952 (AA. 4. 310); also de Foucauld 1925-30. The North African Berbers are 
excluded here. 

Cf. the English translation of the fourteenth-century chronicle The Glorious Victories 
of 'Amda Seyon, King of Ethiopia (Huntingford 1965). On Ethiopian literature in general 
(particularly oral) see Chadwicks iii, 1940: 503 ff., and bibliography to date there; also 
(mainly on written literature): Cerulli 1956; Lifchitz 1940b; Ullendorf I960, Ch. 7; Conti 
Rossini 1942, Klingenheben 1959 and various articles in /. Ethiopian Studies and Rflss. 
studi etiop. 


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3. The Social, Linguistic, and Literary Background 55 

and be transmitted by word of mouth, parallel to the written form; oral 
compositions, on the other hand, are sometimes preserved by being written 
down. In short, the border-line between oral and written in these areas is 
often by no means clear-cut. 

Figure 9. Reading the Bible in up-country Sierra Leone, 1964 
(photo David Murray). 

The earlier belief that Africa had no history was due to ignorance. Africa is no 
exception to the crowded sequence of historical events, even though it is only 
recently that professional historians have turned their attention to this field. 

Oral Literature in Africa.indd 55 


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56 Oral Literature in Africa 

The early impact and continuing spread of Islam, the rise and fall of empires 
and kingdoms throughout the centuries, diplomatic or economic contacts and 
contracts within and outside Africa, movement and communication between 
different peoples, economic and social changes, wars, rebellions, conquests, 
these are all the stuff of history. No doubt too there have been in the past, as 
in the present, rising and falling literary fashions, some short-lived, others 
long-lasting; some drawing their inspiration from foreign sources, others 
developing from existing local forms. Examples in this volume may give a 
rather static impression, as if certain 'traditional' forms have always been the 
same throughout the ages; but such an impression is misleading and arises 
more from lack of evidence than from any necessary immobility in African oral 
art. Unfortunately there are few if any African societies whose oral literature 
has been thoroughly studied and recorded even at one period of time, let 
alone at several periods. 6 But with increasing interest in oral art it may be 
hoped that enough research will be undertaken to make it feasible, one day, to 
write detailed literary and intellectual histories of particular cultures. 

A further consequence of the facile assumptions about lack of change 
in Africa until very recently is to lead one to exaggerate the importance of 
these more recent changes. To one who thinks African society has remained 
static for, perhaps, thousands of years, recently induced changes must 
appear revolutionary and upsetting in the extreme. In fact, recent events, 
important as they are, can be better seen in perspective as merely one phase 
in a whole series of historical developments. As far as oral literature and 
communication are concerned, the changes over the last fifty or hundred 
years are not so radical as they sometimes appear. It is true that these 
years have seen the imposition and then withdrawal of colonial rule, of 
new forms of administration and industry, new groups of men in power, 
and the introduction and spread of Western education accompanied by 
increasing reliance written forms of communication. But the impact of all 
this on literature can be over-emphasized. For one thing, neither schools 
nor industrial development have been evenly spread over the area and 
many regions have little of either. There is nowhere anything approaching 
mass literacy. Indeed it has been estimated that some like eight out of 
ten adults still cannot read or write 7 and where mass primary education 

6 An exception is the interesting but controversial discussion of different periods in Zulu 
praise poetry in Kunene's unpublished thesis (1962), summarized in Cope 1968: 50 ff. 

7 The World Year Book of Education London 1965: 443 (possibly an exaggeration but it is clear 
the number is still very high). 


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3. The Social, Linguistic, and Literary Background 57 

is the rule it will still take years to eradicate adult illiteracy. Bare literacy 
furthermore, in what is often a foreign language (e.g. English or French) 
may not at all mean that school leavers will turn readily to writing as a 
form of communication, far less as a vehicle of literary expression. Literacy, 
a paid job, even an urban setting need not necessarily involve repudiation 
of oral forms for descriptive or aesthetic communication. 

There is a tendency to think of two distinct and incompatible types 
of society (traditional' and 'modern', for instance), and assume that the 
individual must pass from one to the other by a sort of revolutionary leap. 
But individuals do not necessarily feel torn between two separate worlds; 
they exploit the situations in which they find themselves as best they can. 
There is indeed nothing to be surprised at in a continuing reliance on 
oral forms. Similarly there is nothing incongruous, in a story being orally 
narrated about, say, struggling for political office or winning the football 
pools, or in candidates in a modern election campaign using songs to 
stir up and inform mass audiences which have no easy access to written 
propaganda. Again, a traditional migration legend can perfectly well be 
seized upon and effectively exploited by nationalist elements for their own 
purposes to bring a sense of political unity among a disorganized population, 
as in Gabon in the late 1950s. 8 University lecturers seek to further their own 
standing by hiring praise singers and drummers to attend the parties given 
for their colleagues to panegyricize orally the virtues of hosts and guests. 

Such activities may appear odd to certain outside observers — as if 
having 'modern' competence in one sphere must necessarily involve an 
approximation to Western cultural modes in others. But the complexity 
of the facts contradicts this view, which in part still derives from 
nineteenth-century ideas about evolutionary stages. In fact, many different 
forms of literature are possible and exist, and if most of the examples in 
this volume appear to deserve the term 'traditional', this is perhaps more a 
function of the outlook and interests of previous collectors than an indication 
that certain forms of oral art cannot coexist with some degree of literacy 9 

One of the main points of this section is to emphasize that the African 
world is not totally different from that of better-known cultures. It is true 
that much remains to be studied, that the special significance of the oral 
aspect must be grasped, and that one of the difficulties of appreciating 

See the description in Fernandez 1962. 

See for instance the political songs, Christian lyrics, work songs, topical songs, and 

children's singing games described later, as well as the increasing use of radio. 


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58 Oral Literature in Africa 

African literature arises from the unfamiliarity of much of its content or 
context. But— and this is the crucial point— the unfamiliarities are on the 
whole those of detail, not of principle. Far from being something totally 
mysterious or blindly subject to some strange force of 'tradition', oral 
literature in fact bears the same kind of relation to its social background 
as does written literature. In each case it is necessary to study in detail 
the variations bound up with differing cultures or historical periods, and 
to see the significance of these for the full appreciation of their related 
literary forms. In neither case are these studies necessarily easy. But it is a 
disservice to the analysis of comparative literature to suggest that questions 
about African oral literature are either totally simple (answered merely by 
some such term as 'tribal mentality' or 'tradition') or so unfamiliar and 
mysterious that the normal problems in the sociology of literature cannot 
be pursued. 


African literature, like any other, rests on the basis of language. Something 
must now therefore be said about this. Though a full account could only 
be given by a linguist and this description only tries to convey a few points 
and illustrations, the topic is so important for the appreciation of African 
oral literature that some treatment must be attempted here. 

Linguistically Africa is one of the complex areas in the world. The exact 
number of languages to be found is a matter of dispute, but the most often 
cited figure is 800, if anything an underestimate (Greenberg 1962, 1963). 
These, let it be stressed, are languages in the full sense of the term and 
not mere 'dialects'. They can, however, be grouped together into larger 
language families. The exact composition and relationships of these are, 
again, a matter of controversy, but the overall picture is clear. The best-known 
group is that made up of the Bantu languages (these include such languages 
as Zulu, Swahili, and Luba), which extend over a vast area, practically all of 
south and central Africa. In the opinion of some recent scholars, even this 
large Bantu group is only one sub-division within a much larger family, the 
'Niger-Congo' group, which also includes most of the languages of West 
Africa. 10 Another vast family is the Afro-Asiatic (also called Hamito-Semitic), 
a huge language group which not only includes Arabic but also, in the 

10 Including the sub-families of West Atlantic, Mandingo, Gur, Kwa, Ijaw, Central, and 
Adamawa-Eastern (Greenberg 1963, 1962: 17) 


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3. The Social, Linguistic, and Literary Background 59 

form of one language or another, covers most of North Africa, the Horn 
of East Africa (including Ethiopia), and an extensive area near Lake Chad 
(where it includes the well-known and widely spoken example of Hausa). 
The Central Saharan and Macrosudanic families are two further groupings, 
the former covering a large but mostly sparsely inhabited region north and 
east of Lake Chad (including Kanuri), the latter various Sudanic languages 
around the Nile-Congo divide and eastwards in the Nilotic and Great 
Lakes region of East Africa. 11 Finally there is the Click (or Khoisan) family 
covering the Bushman and Hottentot languages which, in the south-west 
of Africa, form a separate island in an area otherwise dominated by Bantu. 12 
Besides these indigenous languages we should also mention the more 
recently arrived language of Arabic and, more recently still, European 
languages like English, French, or Afrikaans. 

In spite of the differentiation into separate language families, there are 
nevertheless certain distinctive features which the indigenous languages 
tend to have in common. These, Greenberg writes, 

result from later contacts among the languages of the continent, on a vast 
scale and over a long period. Practically none of the peculiarities listed ... as 
typical are shared by all African languages, and almost every one is found 
somewhere outside of Africa, but the combination of these features gives a 
definite enough characterization that a language, not labelled as such for an 
observer, would probably be recognized as African (Greenberg 1962: 22) 

Some of the detailed characteristics in the realm of phonetics or semantics 
are not worth lingering over in the present context, but the significance of 
tone must be mentioned. Outside the Afro-Asiatic family, tone (pitch) as 
an element in the structure of the language is almost universal in Africa 
and is particularly striking in several of the West African languages. Even 
some of the Afro-Asiatic languages (in the Chad sub-group) seem to have 
developed tonal systems through the influence of neighbouring languages. 
Complex noun-classifications are also widespread though not universal. 
The best-known instance of this is the system of classes, characterized 
by prefixes, into which all nouns are divided in the Bantu languages; 
but similar morphological forms are also to be found elsewhere. Series 
of derivations built up on the verb are also common and express such 

11 It includes among others the Nilotic and 'Nilo-Hamitic' languages. 

12 The once-accepted view that certain languages outside the Afro-Asiatic family (as now 
recognized) are wholly or partly 'Hamitic' (e.g. Fulani, Bushman, Masai) and that the 
history of these and other areas in Africa could therefore he explained by successive 
incursions of 'Hamites' (racially white) is now rejected by professional scholars of Africa. 


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60 Oral Literature in Africa 

concepts as causative, reciprocal, reflexive, passive, or applicative. As will 
be seen later, all these features have direct relevance for the student of oral 
literature (Lestrade 1937: 304). 

Contrary to earlier views based on either ignorance or speculation 
about the supposed primitive nature of non-literate language, it is now 
clear that African languages are neither simple in structure nor deficient in 
vocabulary. They can, indeed, be exceedingly complex. Some, for instance, 
make complicated and subtle use of varying tones to express different 
lexical and grammatical forms. Others have a system of affixes which have 
been compared in scope to those of Russian, Hungarian, or ancient Greek 
(Andrzejewski 1965: 96). In these and many other ways each language has 
its own genius, its own individual resources of structure and vocabulary 
on which the native speaker can draw for both everyday communication 
and literary expression. 

A full appreciation of these points can naturally only be gained through 
a detailed study and knowledge of a particular language and its various 
forms of expression. But a general discussion of the single example of the 
Bantu group of languages may serve to illustrate better than mere assertion 
the kinds of factors that can be involved in the constant interplay in any 
African language between its linguistic and literary features. 

The literary resources of the Bantu languages have been vividly 
described by Doke. He writes: 

Great literary languages have a heritage of oral tradition which has 
influenced the form of the earliest literary efforts: in many cases this 
early heritage has had to a great extent to be deduced; but we are in the 
fortunate position of being able to observe the Bantu languages at a stage 
in which their literature is still, in the vast majority of cases, entirely oral . . . 

(Doke 1948: 284) 13 

The linguistic basis from which Bantu oral literature has developed and 
on which further written forms may be built emerges clearly from his 

In the first place, the literary potentialities of these languages include 
their large and 'remarkably rich' vocabularies. Languages like Zulu 
or Xhosa, for instance, are known to have a vocabulary of over 30,000 
words (excluding all automatic derivatives), the standard Southern Sotho 
dictionary (20,000 words) is definitely not exhaustive, and Laman's great 
Kongo dictionary gives 50,000-60,000 entries. A large percentage of this 

13 The account here is largely based on this classic article, also Lestrade 1937. 


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3. The Social, Linguistic, and Literary Background 61 

vocabulary, furthermore, is employed in daily use by the 'common people' 
(Doke 1948: 285). While they naturally did not include traditional terms 
for objects and ideas outside indigenous cultural forms, Bantu languages 
have, both earlier and more recently, shown themselves peculiarly 
adaptable, in assimilating foreign terms; and in the range of 'the fields 
of experience with which Bantu thought is familiar, the extent of Bantu 
vocabulary tends to be rather larger than that of the average European 
language' (Lestrade 1937: 303-4). 

Vocabulary, however, is not just a matter of the number of words. It also 
concerns the way in which they are used. In this respect, the picturesque and 
imaginative forms of expression of many Bantu languages are particularly 
noticeable. These are often applied to even the commonest actions, objects, 
and descriptions. The highly figurative quality of Bantu speech comes out 
in some of these terms— molalatladi, the rainbow, is literally 'the sleeping-place 
of the lightning'; mojalefa, the son and heir of a household, is 'the eater of 
the inheritance'; bohlaba-tsatsi, the east, is 'where the sun pierces' (Lestrade 
1937: 304). This also comes out in compound nouns. In Kongo, for instance, 
we have kikolwa-malavu, a drunken person (lit. 'being stiff with wine'), or 
kilangula-nsangu, a slanderer (lit. 'uprooting reputations'), and in Bemba 
icikata-nsoka, a courageous person (lit. 'handling a snake'), and umuleka-ciwa, 
ricochet (lit. 'the devil aims it') (Knappert 1965: 221, 223-4). Besides the 
praise forms mentioned later, figurative expression is also commonly 
used to convey abstract ideas in a vivid and imaginative way. The idea 
of 'conservatism', for instance, is expressed in Zulu by a phrase meaning 
literally 'to eat with an old-fashioned spoon', 'dissimulation' by 'he spoke 
with two mouths', while in Southern Sotho idiom, the idea of 'bribery' is 
conveyed by 'the hand in the cloak' (Lestrade 1937: 304) 

The flexible way in which this vocabulary can be deployed can only be 
explained with some reference to the characteristics of Bantu morphology. 
One of the most striking features of its structure is the wealth of derivative 
forms which it is possible to build up on a few roots through the use of 
affixes, agglutination, and at times internal vowel changes. By means of 
these derivatives it is feasible to express the finest distinctions and most 
delicate shades of meaning. 

The verb system in particular is extraordinarily elaborate. There are of 
course the normal forms of conjugation of the type we might expect— though 
these forms are complex enough and exhibit a great variety of moods, 
implications, aspects, and tenses. Zulu, for instance, has, apart from 
imperative and infinitive forms, five moods, three implications (simple, 


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62 Oral Literature in Africa 

progressive, and exclusive), three aspects, and a large number of tenses 
built up both on verbal roots and through a system of deficient verbs 
forming compound tenses (Doke 1948: 292-3). But in addition there is 
also a wealth of derivative verbal forms which provide an even more 
fertile source on which the speaker can draw. There is an almost endless 
variety of possibilities in this respect, with full scope for ad hoc formation 
according to the speaker's need or mood, so that stereotyped monotony 
is easily avoided. 

The extent of these derivative verbal forms can be illustrated from the 
case of Lamba, a Bantu language from Central Africa. For this one language, 
Doke lists seventeen different formations of the verb, each expressing a 
different aspect. These comprise: 

1. Passive (suffix -wa). 

2. Neuter (intransitive state or condition, suffix -ika or -eka). 

3. Applied (action applied on behalf of, towards, or with regard to 
some object, suffix -ila, -ina, et al.), e.g. ima (rise) > imina (rise up 

4. Causative (various suffixes), e.g. lala (lie down) > lalika (lay 

5. Intensive (intensity or quickness of action, suffix -isya or -esya), 
e.g. pama (beat) > pamisya (beat hard). 

6. Reciprocal (indicating action done to one another, suffix -ana 
or (complex form) -ansyanya), e.g. ipaya (kill) > ipayansyanya 
(indulge in mutual slaughter). 

7. Associative (indicating action in association, suffix -akana or -ankana), 
e.g. sika (bury) > sikakana (be buried together). 

8. Reversive (indicating reversal of the action, various suffixes 
with different meanings), e.g. longa (pack) > longoloka (come 
unpacked), longolola (unpack), and longolosya (cause to be in an 
unpacked state). 

9. Extensive (indicating an action extended in time or space, 
various suffixes), e.g. pama (strike) > pamala (beat). 

10. Perfective (of action carried to completion or perfection, various 
suffixes), e.g. leka (leave) > lekelela (leave quite alone). 

11. Stative (state, condition, or posture, in -ama). 

12. Contactive (indicating contact, touch, in -ata). 

13. Frequentative (by reduplicating the stem), e.g. -ya (go) > -yayaya 
(go on and on and on). 


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3. The Social, Linguistic, and Literary Background 63 
A few other forms occur sporadically: 

1. Excessive (in -asika), e.g. pema (breathe) > pemasika (pant). 

2. Contrary (in -ngana), e.g. selengana (be in confusion). 

3. Reference to displacement, violent movement (-muka and 
various other suffixes), e.g. cilimuka (rush off). 

4. Reference to extension, spreading out (suffix -alala), e.g. andalala 
(spread out at work) (Doke 1948: 290-2). 

Lamba is perhaps particularly rich in these verbal derivatives, but similar 
formations could be cited for each of the Bantu languages. In the rather 
different case of Mongo, for instance, Hulstaert lists eighty different forms of 
the verb in his table of verbal' conjugation', each with its characteristic format 
and meaning (Hulstaert 1965: table at end of vol., also chs 5-6). Madan sums 
up the 'extraordinary richness' of the Bantu verb when he writes: 

Any verb stem . . . can as a rule be made the base of some twenty or thirty 
others, all reflecting the root idea in various lights, sometimes curiously 
limited by usage to a particular aspect and limited significance, mostly 
quite free and unrestrained in growth, and each again bearing the whole 
luxuriant super-growth of voices, moods, tenses, and person-forms, to the 
utmost limits of its powers of logical extension (Madan 1911: 53). 

In this way, then, a constant and fertile resource was at hand on which 
composers could draw according to their wishes and skill. 

A second subtle linguistic instrument is provided by the system of nouns 
and noun-formation. The basic structure is built up on a kind of grammatical 
class-gender, with concordial agreement. In Bantu languages, that is, there 
are a number of different classes, varying from twelve or thirteen to as 
many as twenty-two (in Luganda), into one or other of which all nouns fall. 
Each class has a typical prefix which, in one or another form, is repeated 
throughout the sentence in which the noun occurs (concordial agreement). 
A simple example will make this clear. The Zulu term for horses, amahhashi, 
is characterized by the prefix ama- which must reappear in various fixed 
forms (a-, ama-) in the relevant phrase. Thus 'his big horses ran away' must be 
expressed as 'horses they-his they-big they-ran-away' ( amah hashi akhe amak hulu 
abalekile (Doke 1948: 289). The precision of reference achieved through 
this grammatical form dispels the vagueness and ambiguity sometimes 
inherent in equivalent English forms, and at the same time provides 
possibilities — which are exploited — for alliteration and balance in literary 


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64 Oral Literature in Africa 

Each of these noun classes tends to cover one main type of referent, 
though there are variations between different languages. In general terms 
we can say that names of people tend to predominate in classes 1 and 2, 
names of trees in classes 3 and 4, names of animals in classes 9 and 10 
abstract terms in class 14, verb infinitives in class 15, and locatives in classes 
16, 17, and 18 (Doke 1948: 289) There are effective ways of using this system. 
Sometimes by changing the prefix (and thus class) of a particular word it is 
possible to put it into a new class and so change its meaning or connotation. 
In Tswana, for instance, mo/nna, man (class 1) takes on new meaning when 
transferred to other classes, as se/nna, manliness, bojnna, manhood; while 
in Venda we have tshi/thu, thing, ku/thu, tiny thing, and di/thu, huge thing 
(Doke 1948: 288) Besides such straightforward and accepted instances, 
the transference of noun class is sometimes exploited in a vivid and less 
predictable way in the actual delivery of an oral piece. We can cite the 
instance of a Nilyamba story about the hare's wicked exploits which ends 
up with the narrator vividly and economically drawing his conclusion by 
putting the hare no longer in his own noun class but, by a mere change of 
prefix, into that normally used for monsters! (Johnson 1931: 330) 

Besides the basic noun class system, there is the further possibility of 
building up a whole series of different noun formations to express exact 
shades of meaning— humour, appraisement, relationships, and so on. This 
system is far too complex to be treated briefly, but a few instances may 
serve to show the kind of rich flexibility available to the speaker. 

There are special forms which by the use of suffixes or prefixes transform 
the root noun into a diminutive, into a masculine or feminine form, or into a 
term meaning the in-law, the father, the mother, the daughter, and so on of 
the referent. Personification is particularly popular. It can be economically 
effected by transferring an ordinary noun from its usual class to that of 
persons. Thus in Zulu, for instance, we have the personified form uNtaba 
(Mountain) from the common noun for mountain, intaba; and uSikhotha, 
from the ordinary isikhotha, long grass (Doke 1948: 295). This is a type of 
personification sometimes found in stories where the name of an animal is 
transferred to the personal class and thus, as it were, invested with human 
character. A further way of achieving personification is by a series of special 
formations based, among other things, on special prefixes, derivations from 
verbs or ideophones, reduplication, or the rich resources of compounding. 

Several of these bases are also used to form special impersonal nouns. 
Such nouns built up on verbal roots include instances like, say, a verb stem 
modified by a class 4 prefix to indicate 'method of action' (e.g. the Kikuyu 


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3. The Social, Linguistic, and Literary Background 65 

muthiire, manner of walking, from thii, walk), or by a class 7 prefix suggesting 
an action done carelessly or badly (e.g. Lamba icendeende, aimless walking 
about, from enda, walk; or Lulua tshiakidakula, gibberish, from akida, talk), 
and many others (Doke 1948: 296). Reduplication is also often used in noun 
formation. In Zulu we have the ordinary form izinhlobo, kinds, becoming 
izinhlobonhlobo, variety of species, and imimoya, winds, reduplicated to give 
imimoyamoya with the meaning of 'constantly changing winds'. 

Compound nouns above all exhibit the great variety of expression 
open to the speaker of a Bantu language. These are usually built up on 
various combinations of verbs (compounded with e.g. subject, object, or 
descriptive) or nouns (compounded with other nouns, with a qualitative, 
or with an ideophone). Thus we get the Lamba umwenda-nandu, a deep ford 
(lit. 'where the crocodile travels'), icikoka-mabwe, the klipspringer antelope 
(lit. 'rock-blunter'); the Xhosa indlulamthi, giraffe (lit. 'surpasser of trees'), 
or amabona-ndenzile, attempts (lit. 'see what I have done'); or, finally, the Ila 
name for the Deity, Ipaokubozha, with the literal meaning 'He that gives and 
rots' (Doke 1948: 297-8). To these must be added the special 'praise names' 
described later which add yet a further figurative aspect to those already 

In these various formations and derivatives of noun and verb, Bantu 
languages thus have a subtle and variable means of expression on which 
the eloquent speaker and composer can draw at will. In addition there is 
the different question of style and syntax as well as the actual collocation 
of the vocabulary used, all of which vary with the particular literary genre 
chosen by the speaker. In general, apart from the rhetorical praise poems 
of the southern areas, Bantu syntax gives the impression of being relatively 
simple and direct. This impression can however be a little misleading: the 
syntactical relationships of sentences are more complex than they appear at 
first sight. What seems like co-ordination of simple sentences in narrative 
in fact often conceals subtle forms of subordination through the use of 
subjunctive, sequences of historic tenses, or conditionals. In this way the 
fluent speaker can avoid the monotony of a lengthy series of parallel and 
conjunctive sentences— though this is the form in which such passages tend 
to appear in English translations. Furthermore, Bantu expression generally 
is not limited, as is English, by a more or less rigid word-order: because of 
its structure there are many possible ways in which, by changes in word-order 
or terminology, delicate shades of meaning can be precisely expressed 
which in English would have to depend on the sometimes ambiguous form 
of emphatic stress. All in all, Doke concludes, 'Bantu languages are capable 


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66 Oral Literature in Africa 

of remarkable fluency .... They provide a vehicle for wonderful handling 
by the expert speaker or writer' (Doke 1948: 285) 

Besides the basic structure of Bantu languages in vocabulary and 
morphology there are some further linguistic features which add to its 
resources as a literary instrument. Perhaps most important among these is 
the form usually called the ideophone (sometimes also called 'mimic noun', 
'intensive noun', 'descriptive', 'indeclinable verbal particle', etc.). This is 
a special word which conveys a kind of idea-in-sound and is commonly 
used in Bantu languages to add emotion or vividness to a description 
or recitation. Ideophones are sometimes onomatopoeic, but the acoustic 
impression often conveys aspects which, in English culture at least, are not 
normally associated with sound at all— such as manner, colour, taste, smell, 
silence, action, condition, texture, gait, posture, or intensity. To some extent 
they resemble adverbs in function, but in actual use and grammatical 
form they seem more like interjections. They are specifically introduced 
to heighten the narrative or add an element of drama. They also come in 
continually where there is a need for a particularly lively style or vivid 
description and are used with considerable rhetorical effect to express 
emotion or excitement. An account, say, of a rescue from a crocodile or a 
burning house, of the complicated and excited interaction at a communal 
hunt or a football match— these are the kinds of contexts made vivid, 
almost brought directly before the listener's eyes, by the plentiful use of 

They are used by accomplished speakers with an artistic sense for the right 
word for the complete situation, or its important aspects, at the right pitch 
of vividness. To be used skilfully, I have been told, they must correspond 
to one's inner feeling. Their use indicates a high degree of sensitive 
impressionability (Fortune 1962: 6, on Shona ideophones) 

The graphic effect of these ideophones is not easy to describe in writing, but 
it is worth illustrating some of the kinds of terms involved. The Rhodesian 
Shona have a wide range of ideophones whose use and syntax have been 
systematically-analysed by Fortune (1962). Among them are such terms as 

k'we— sound of striking a match. 

gwengwendere— sound of dropping enamel plates. 

nyiri nyiri nyiri nyiri— flickering of light on a cinema screen. 

dhdbhu dhdbhu dhdbhu—oi an eagle flying slowly. 

tsvukururu — oi finger millet turning quite red. 


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3. The Social, Linguistic, and Literary Background 67 

go, go, go, ngondo ngondo ngondo, pxaka pxaka pxaka pxaka pxaka — the chopping 
down of a tree, its fall, and the splintering of the branches. 
Again we could cite the following Zulu instances: 

khwi — turning around suddenly. 

dwi — dawning, coming consciousness, returning sobriety, easing of pain, 


ntrr— birds flying high with upward sweep; aeroplane or missile flying. 

bekebe— flickering faintly and disappearing, khwibishi— sudden recoil, 

forceful springing back. 

fafalazi— doing a thing, carelessly or superficially. 

ya — perfection, completion (Fivaz 1963) 

Ideophones often appear in reduplicated form. This is common with many 
of its uses in Thonga to give a vivid impression of gait and manner of 

A tortoise is moving laboriously— khwanya-khwanya-khwanya! 

A butterfly in the air — pha-pha-pha-pha. 

A frog jumps into a pond, after three little jumps on the 

ground — noni-noni-noni-djamaaa. 

A man runs very slowly— wahle-wahle-wahle. 

A man runs with little hurried steps — nyakwi-nyakwi-nyakwi. 

A man runs at full speed — nyu-nyu-nyu-nyu-nyuuu. 

He walks like a drunkard— tlikwi-tlikwi. 

A tired dog— fambifa-fambifa-fambifa. 

A lady with high-heeled shoes— peswa-peswa (Junod 1938: 31-3) 

Using this form, a Thonga writer can describe vividly and economically 
how a man was seized, thrown on the thatched roof of a hut, came down 
violently and fell on the ground: 

Vo nwi! tshuku-tshuku ! tlhela a ku: shulululuuu ! a wa hi matimba a ku: pyakavakaa 

(Junod 1938: 31) 

In Thonga as in other Bantu languages ideophones are constantly being 
invented anew, demonstrating the richness and elasticity of the language. 
For the Thonga, this form 

expresses in a little word, a movement, a sound, an impression of fear, joy 
or amazement. Sensation is immediate and is immediately translated into 
a word or a sound, a sound which is so appropriate, so fitting, that one 
sees the animal moving, hears the sound produced, or feels oneself the very 
sensation expressed (Junod 1938: 30-1) 


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68 Oral Literature in Africa 

In the ideophone, therefore, speakers of Bantu languages have a rhetorical 
and emotive tool whose effectiveness cannot be overemphasized. In vivid 
and dramatic passages 'to use it is to be graphic; to omit it is to be prosaic' 
(Doke 1948: 301), and, as Burbridge wrote of it earlier: 

In descriptive narration in which emotions are highly wrought upon . . . the 
vivid descriptive power of kuti [ideophone] is seen, and the-human appeal is 
made, and the depths of pathos are stirred by this medium of expression 
of intensely-wrought emotion without parallel in any other language. The 
ideophone is the key to Native descriptive oratory. I can't imagine a Native 
speaking in public with intense feeling without using it (Burbridge: 343, 
quoted Doke 1948: 287. For some other discussions of ideophones in Bantu 
languages see Jaques 1941; Kunene 1965; Hulstaert 1962; on ideophones in 
non-Bantu languages see below). 

Also very striking are the praise names of Bantu languages. These are terms 
which pick out some striking quality of an object and are used for inanimate 
objects, birds, animals, and finally, in their fullest form, as names for 
people. We meet compound names that could be translated as, for instance, 
'Forest-treader', 'Little animal of the veld', 'Crumple-up-a-person-with-a- 
hardwood-stick', or 'Father of the people'. Other examples are the Ankole 
'He Who Is Not Startled', 'I Who Do Not Tremble', 'He Who Is Of Iron', 'He 
Who Compels The Foe To Surrender', or 'He Who Is Not Delirious In The 
Fingers' (i.e. who grasps his weapons firmly) (Morris 1964: 19ff), and the 
Zulu 'He who hunted the forests until they murmured', 'With his shields 
on his knees' (i.e. always ready for a fight), or 'Even on branches he can 
hold tight' (i.e. able to master any situation) (Cope 1968: 72). Sometimes 
the reference is to more recent conditions and formulations, a type which 
occurs in Kamba praise names for girls in popular songs. These include 
Mbitili (from English 'battery'): car-batteries are said to provide heat just 
as the girl's attractiveness heats up her admirers; Singano (needle), praising 
the sharpness of the girl's breasts; and Mbynki (from English 'Buick'): as 
Buicks are famous for their high-gloss black finish, this is effective praise 
of the beauty of the girl's skin (Whiteley 1963: 165) Praise names, it is clear, 
provide a figurative element in the literature in which they appear and, like 
the Homeric epithet in Greek epic, add colour and solemnity. In panegyric 
poetry the use of praise names is one of the primary characteristics (see Ch. 5), 
but in all contexts the use of praise names can add an extra dimension 
to speech or literature and continue to flourish amidst new conditions 
(further comments on praise names in Ch. 16). 

A few additional features should be mentioned briefly. One is the sound 
system. There is the 'dominantly vocalic quality of the Bantu sound-system, 


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3. The Social, Linguistic, and Literary Background 69 

the absence of neutral and indeterminate vowels, and the general avoidance 
of consonant-combinations' (Lestrade 1937: 302) Bantu languages differ in 
the use they make of this system. Shona, for instance, is definitely staccato, 
Swahili to some extent so, and the tonal systems also vary. Some use a 
regular long syllable, as in the Nguni languages of the south (including 
Zulu and Xhosa): 

Strongly-marked dynamic stresses, occurring in more or less regular positions 
in all words of the same language, and the fairly regular incidence of long 
syllables also usually in the same positions, give to Bantu utterance a rhythmic 
quality and a measured and balanced flow not met with in languages with 
irregular stresses and more staccato delivery (Lestrade 1937: 303). 

The particular genius of each language gives rise to various possibilities 
in the structure of verse. The type of 'prosody' often used exploits the 
grammatical and syntactical possibilities of the language, which is not, as 
in English, bound by a fixed word order. Alliterative parallelism is easily 
achieved. Thus in the Zulu proverb 

Kuhlwile I phambili II kusile I emuva 

It is dark / in front // it is light /behind ('it is easy to be wise after the event'). 14 

(quoted Lestrade 1937: 307) 

there is perfect parallelism, idea contrasting to idea in corresponding position, 
identical parts of speech paralleling each other (verb for verb, and adverb 
for adverb), and, finally, number of syllables and dynamic stress exactly 
matching each other. Similar effects are produced by 'cross-parallelism' 
(chiasmus) where the correspondence is to be found crosswise and not 
directly, and by 'linking', the repetition of a prominent word or phrase in a 
previous line in the first half of the next one. The kind of balance may even 
extend to correspondence in intonation and, though very different from 
more familiar 'metrical' forms, is felt to provide perfect balance and rhythm 
by native speakers of the language (Lestrade 1937: 307-8). 

To these linguistic resources on which the Bantu speaker can draw 
we must also add the whole literary tradition that lies behind his speech. 
There is, for one thing, the interest in oratory and in the potentialities of 
the language which is typical of many Bantu peoples. 'They have the germ 
of literary criticism in their very blood', writes Doke, and discussions 
of words and idioms, and plays on tone, word, and syllable length 'all 
provide hours of entertainment around the hearth or camp fire in Central 
Africa' (Doke 1948: 284). There is the rich fund of proverbs so often used to 

14 Zulu proverbs are frequently exhibit in metrical form. 


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70 Oral Literature in Africa 

ornament both everyday and literary expression with their figurative and 
elliptical forms. There are the 'praise names' that occur so commonly in 
Bantu languages, forming on the one hand part of the figurative resources 
of Bantu vocabulary and word-building, and on the other a form of literary 
expression in its own right, often elaborated in the south into full praise 
verses of complex praise poetry (see Ch. 5). To all these literary resources 
we must, finally, add the formal genres of Bantu literature — prose narration, 
proverb, riddle, song, praise poetry. In each of these the artist can choose to 
express himself, drawing both on the resources of the language and on the 
set forms and styles placed at his disposal 

From the artless discursiveness and unaffected imagery of the folktales to 
the stark economy of phrasing and the elaborate figures of speech in the 
ritual chants, from the transparent simplicity and highly-charged emotion of 
the dramatic songs to the crabbed allusiveness and sophisticated calm of the 
proverb, and from the quiet humour and modest didacticism of the riddle 
to the high seriousness and ambitious rhetorical flight of the praise-poem 

(Lestrade 1937: 305). 

I have written at some length about the basis for oral literature in the single 
Bantu group in order to illustrate from one well-documented example the 
kind of resources which may be available in an African language. Other 
languages and language groups in Africa have other potentialities— some 
in common with Bantu, some very different— but a similar kind of analysis 
could no doubt be made in each case. There is no reason, in short, to accept 
the once common supposition that African languages, unlike those of 
Europe, could provide only an inadequate vehicle for the development of 
literature. This point is made here in general terms and will not be repeated 
constantly later, but it is necessary, in the case of each analysis of a single 
literary form, to remember the kind of literary and linguistic resources that, 
though unmentioned, are likely to lie behind it. 15 


It is necessary to examine briefly the general relevance of certain other 
elements, particularly tone, metre and other prosodic forms, and music. 

The significance of tone in literary forms has been most fully explored in 
West African languages, though it is not confined to them. In these languages 

15 It is worth bearing this in mind since in most cases it has only been possible to include 
translations of the literary examples quoted. 


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3. The Social, Linguistic, and Literary Background 71 

tone is significant for grammatical form and for lexical meaning. In, for 
instance, Yoruba, Ibo, or Ewe, the meaning of words with exactly the same 
phonetic form in other respects may be completely different according to 
the tone used— it becomes a different word in fact. The tense of a verb, case 
of a noun, even the difference between affirmative and negative can also 
sometimes depend on tonal differentiation. Altogether, tone is something 
of which speakers of such languages are very aware, and it has even been 
said of Yoruba that a native speaker finds it easier to understand someone 
who gets the sounds wrong than someone speaking with incorrect tones. 

This awareness of tone can be exploited to aesthetic effect. Not only is 
there the potential appreciation of unformalized tonal patterns and the 
interplay of the tones of speech and of music in sung verse (see Ch. 9), but 
tones also form the foundation of the special literary form in which words 
are transmitted through drums (Ch. 17). In addition tone is apparently 
sometimes used as a formal element in the structure of certain types of 
orally delivered art. In Yoruba not only do tonal associations play a part in 
conveying overtones and adding to the effectiveness of literary expression, 
but the tonal patterning is also part of the formal structure of a poem. One 
light poem, for instance, is based on the tonal pattern of high, mid, low, mid, 
with its reduplicate of low, low, mid, low: 

Jo bata — bata o gb'ona abata (2) 
Ojo bata — bata (2) 
Opa b'o ti mo jo lailai. 

Dancing with irregular steps you are heading for the marsh (2), 

If you will always dance with those irregular steps, 

you [? will] never be a good dancer. (Lasebikan 1956: 48) 

Another, in more serious vein, gives a vivid description of a great battle, 
adding a note of authenticity with the author's claim to have been an 

Ija kan, ija kan ti nwon ja VOfa nko — 

Oju tal'o to die mbe ? 

Gbogbo igi t'o s'oju e I'o wo' we, 

Gbogbo ikan t'o s'oju e I'o w'ewu eje 

Ogoro agbonrin t'o s'oju e I'o hu'wo I'oju ode; 

Sugbon o s'oju mi pa kete n'ile we nibi nwon bi mi Vomo; 

Agba ni ng o ti da, mo kuro Vomode agbekorun r'oko. 

What about a great fight that was fought at Of a— 
Is there anyone here who witnessed a bit of it? 
Although the trees that saw it here all shed their leaves, 


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72 Oral Literature in Africa 

And the shrubs that saw it were all steeped with blood, And the very stags 

that saw it grew fresh horns while the hunters looked on, 

Yet I saw every bit of it, for it was fought where I was born. 

I do not claim to be old, but I'm no more a child that must be carried to the 

farm (Lasebikan 1955: 35-6) 

Lasebikan comments on the tonal structure of this poem. It falls into four 
distinct divisions: 

How are these divisions marked out ? Not by means of rhymes as in 

English poems, but by the tone of the last syllable of the division'. He shows 
how the actual words used are carefully chosen to fit this tonal structure, for 
possible alternatives with the same meaning and syllable number have tonal 
compositions that 'would spoil the cadence of the poem' (Lasebikan 1955: 36). 

A similar but more detailed analysis has been made by Babalola of the 
way tonal patterning is a characteristic feature of the structure of Yoruba 
hunting poetry (ijala). The musical and rhythmic effect of this poetry arises 
partly from tonal assonance — specific short patterns of syllabic tones 
repeated at irregular intervals— or, alternatively, from tonal contrast which 
'seems to . . . increase the richness of the music of the ijala lines by adding to 
the element of variety in successive rhythm-segments' (Babalola 1965: 64-5, 
1966 (Appendix A passim)). 

In other forms and areas too we sometimes see tonal correspondence. 
There is sometimes tonal parallelism between question and answer in 'tone 
riddles' or within the balanced phrases of some proverbs (see e.g. Simmons 
1958 (Efik); Van Avermaet 1955 (Luba)). The use of tone correspondence 
in some poetry is so striking as to have been called a species of 'rhyme' 
(e.g. the 'tonal rhyme' of Efik, Ganda, and possibly Luba poetry (Simmons 
1960a; Morris: 1964: 39; Van Avermaet 1955: 5; Stappers 1952a). 

Some of the detailed analyses of the significance of tone in literature are 
controversial, and little enough work has as yet been done on this formal 
aspect. But as linguists increasingly stress the general importance of tone in 
African languages throughout the continent, so we can expect many more 
studies of this aspect of literature. 

Ideophones and other forms of sound association are so important in 
non-Bantu as well as Bantu languages that they are worth mentioning again 
at this point. Thus there are the important sound associations in Yoruba 
which connect, for instance, a high toned nasal vowel with smallness, or 
low toned plosives with huge size, unwieldiness, or slow movement, often 
intensified by reduplication (Lasebikan 1956: 44) the connection in Ewe and 
Gbeya with the vowel /i/ and a lateral resonant consonant in ideophones 


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3. The Social, Linguistic, and Literary Background 73 

for 'sweet', or the common use of back rounded vowels for ideophones 
indicating 'dark, dim, obscure, foggy', etc (Samarin 1965a: 120). In many 
cases ideophones constitute a high proportion of the lexical resources of the 
language. In Gbeya, in the Central African Republic, about 1,500 ideophones 
have been recorded. A number of African languages are said to have twenty, 
thirty, or even forty ideophones just to describe different kinds of 'walking' 
(Samarin 1965: 117, 118). Indeed it has been suggested by one authority that 
'ideophones by count constitute, next to nouns and verbs, a major part of the 
total lexicon of African languages' (Samarin 1965: 121). 

Many different instances of these graphic ideophones could be added 
to the earlier (Bantu) examples we have cited. We have, for instance, the 
Yoruba representation of water draining out drop by drop (to to to), a 
lady in high heels (ko ko ko ko, ko), or a stalwart in heavy boots (ko ko ko) 
(Lasebikan 1956: 44). The Zande ideophones digbidigbi (boggy, oozy, slushy), 
guzuguzu (fragrantly, sweet smelling), gangbugangbn (listlessly), degeredegere 
(swaggeringly), and gbaraga-gbaraga (quarrelsome-ly). 16 The effectiveness 
of such forms for descriptive and dramatic formulations and the poetic 
quality they can add to ordinary language need not be re-emphasized 
except to say that this point constantly reappears in detailed analyses of 
African oral art. 

Then there is the topic of prosodic systems in African verse. This is 
a difficult question which, apart from one classic article by Greenberg 
(largely devoted to Arabic influence) (Greenberg 1960; also 1947; 1949), has 
received relatively little attention. It is clear that many different forms are 
possible which can only be followed up in detailed accounts of particular 
literary genres. Broadly, however, one can say that six main factors can be 
involved: rhyme, alliteration, syllable count, quantity, stress, and tone (here 
and throughout this section I draw mainly on Greenberg 1960). Of these, the 
last three can only be used when there is a suitable linguistic basis. Tone, 
for instance, can only perform a prosodic function in tonal languages; and 
this influence of language on form can be seen in the way Hausa has been 
able to keep to the quantitative form of its Arabic verse models, whereas in 
Swahili, equally or more dominated by the Arabic tradition, the nature of the 
language has precluded the use of quantitative metres and instead turned 
interest to rhyme and syllable count (Greenberg 1947; 1949; 1960: 927, 935). 

16 Evans-Pritchard 1962: 143; cf, also E. E. Evans-Pritchard 1961; for other discussions 
of ideophones in non-Bantu languages see e.g. Equilbecq i, 1913: 100-2 (West Africa); 
Finnegan 1967: 80-1 (Limba); Galaal and Andrzejewski 1956: 94 ('imitative words' in 
Somali), as well as many passing references in collections of stories, etc.. 


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74 Oral Literature in Africa 

The Arabic influences on African prosody have been summarized by 
Greenberg and need not be repeated in detail here. In spite of various difficulties 
and uncertainties the Arabic-based styles are somewhat easier to analyse than 
some-other forms of African poetry partly because, for one familiar with the 
Arabic forms, the parallel African ones are ultimately recognizable partly 
because they appear in local written forms in which the evidence tends to be 
somewhat more plentiful and accurate than for oral African poetry. Classical 
Arabic prosody is a source of verse forms in several African languages, 
particularly the qasidah (ode) based on quantity and rhyme. This occurs, for 
example, in learned Fulani poetry, and in learned (and sometimes in popular 
and oral) Hausa poetry; in both cases there is the retention of quantitative 
features made feasible by the forms of these two languages. The post-classical 
tasmit has also influenced African forms. Again it uses quantity and rhyme, 
but with more stress on rhyme. It occurs in several West African languages 
(Hausa, Kanuri), but has reached its highest development in Swahili where 'it 
is by far the most common form in both learned and popular poetry, whether 
sung or recited' (Greenberg 1960: 935). Since Swahili does not possess vowel 
quantitative distinctions, this principle has been replaced by that of syllable 
count accompanied by rhyme. Its most popular form is the four-line stanza 
(each line containing eight syllables), with the basic rhyme scheme aaab/cccb/ 
dddb/. . ., but five-line stanzas (takhmis) also sometimes occur (Greenberg 
1960: 934-6, 1947; also Harries 1962: 9 ff., Hichens 1962-3). 

The instances so far are unmistakable cases of direct Arabic influences. 
Certain other examples are not so clear, though Arabic influence seems 
likely. In the Horn of Africa (Ethiopia and Somali, etc.) rhyme is a frequent 
prosodic principle (sometimes in combination with other features), to such 
an extent that Greenberg speaks of this region as the 'East African rhyming 
area' (Greenberg 1960: 937ff.). In various ways, this use of rhyme is exploited 
in— to give just a few instances— early Ge'ez verse (classical Ethiopic), the 
Amharic royal songs, Galla strophic poetry, and Tigre verse. A few indications 
of possible Arabic influence can also be detected among the Muslim Nubians 
of the Nile Valley and the Berbers (particularly the Tuareg) where, again, 
rhyme is used (De Foucauld i, 1925: xiii). As Greenberg sums it up: 

The outstanding impression in the historic dimensions is the vast reach of 
certain, and in many cases highly probable, Arabic influence in the northern 
part of Africa — an influence well documented for many other aspects of the 
culture of the area (Greenberg 1960: 947). " 

17 On Arabic influences see also Sow 1965, and the interesting analysis of a Fulani poem by 
Seydou 1966. 


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3. The Social, Linguistic, and Literary Background 75 

For the forms of African prosody which cannot be thus traced to ultimate Arabic 
influence, the picture is much less clear— indeed little work has been done on 
this. It seems that rhyme and regular metre are uncommon or non-existent. 
Sometimes alliteration seems to be a marked feature. There are, for example, 
the very rigid rules of alliteration in Somali poetry in which each line in 
the whole poem must contain a word beginning with the same sound 
(Greenberg 1960: 928-9; Andrzejewski and Lewis 1964: 42-3). There is also 
the much less formalized alliteration arising from parallelism in Southern 
Bantu praise poetry (see above, also Ch. 5). As mentioned earlier, tone 
is also sometimes a formal characteristic of some African poetry, though 
its analysis has not as yet proceeded very far. In Nkundo poetry, on the 
other hand, tone seems to be of less significance, if we accept Boelaert's 
contention that stress (accent dynamique) is the basic characteristic of the 
prosodic system (Boelaert, 1952). The same point might be made about 
the dynamic stress in Southern Bantu praise poems (Ch. 5) and in Ankole 
recitations (Morris 1964: 32ff.). In other cases again, it seems that either 
the musical setting or such features as repetition, linking, or parallelism 
perform certain of the functions we normally associate with metre or 
rhyme. But the whole question is a difficult one, and there seem to be many 
cases when, either out of ignorance or from the nature of the material, the 
observer finds it difficult to isolate any clear prosodic system in what he 
calls 'poetry'. Thus in Southern Bantu literature, to quote Lestrade again: 

The distinction between prose and verse is a small one . . . the border-line 
between them is extremely difficult to ascertain and define, while the 
verse-technique, in so far as verse can be separated from prose, is extremely 
free and unmechanical. Broadly speaking, it may be said that the difference 
between prose and verse in Bantu literature is one of spirit rather than 
of form, and that such formal distinction as there is one of degree of use 
rather than of quality of formal elements. Prose tends to be less emotionally 
charged, less moving in content and full-throated in expression than verse; and 
also— but only in the second place — less formal in structure, less rhythmical 
in movement, less metrically balanced (Lestrade 1937: 306). 

The analysis of indigenous African prosody is thus clearly by no means a 
simple matter, and apart from the work of musicologists on the rhythm of 
fully musical forms (on which see Ch. 9 below), relatively little study has 
apparently yet been made of this aspect of African literature. 18 

18 For some further references to questions of prosody see Coupez and Kamanzi 1957, and 
1962: 8-9; Coupez 1958, 1959 (on the quantitative element in Rundi and Ruanda verse); 
Klingenheben 1959 (argues from Amharic popular songs that metre is based on accent 
rather than, according to the usual view, on syllabic numbering). 


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76 Oral Literature in Africa 

This brings us to the final point— the significance of music. Clearly this 
is not a feature of all African literary forms. It occurs seldom in what is 
normally classified as 'prose' — stories, narrations, riddles, proverbs, or 
oratory (except for songs within stories, see Chs. 9 and 13).. In 'poetry' it 
is more common. In fact the occurrence of music or of a sung mode of 
expression has sometimes been taken as one of the main differentiating 
marks between prose and verse. Even here, however, there is a wide range 
of possibilities. On the one hand, in much panegyric and some religious 
verse the verbal element is markedly predominant over the musical, and 
such forms are, at most, delivered in a kind of recitative or intoned form. 
Then there are other types in which the music is progressively more 
important, until we reach the extreme choric form (often with leader and 
chorus) instrumental accompaniment and even dance, like the 'symphonic 
poems' of the Chopi (Tracey 1948a). In such cases the music, however 
closely intertwined with the words, may come to dominate them and we 
can no longer assume that, as seems so often to be taken for granted in 
Western culture, verbally expressed literature can be taken as self-evidently 
the 'top art'. In some cases, indeed, it is clear that musical expression (or 
even sometimes the dance) may be the object of greater interest, critical 
appreciation, and specialized performance. This is a central question in 
any assessment of the position of oral literature within a particular cultural 
tradition, for even in less extreme cases the musical aspect may still be 
a very important one. Though it may appear secondary to one basically 
interested in literature, it is clearly something which cannot be ignored, 
above all in lyric forms. 

As in the case of the more purely linguistic basis, I will not keep drawing 
attention to the significance of music for every single relevant form (some 
further points are made on this subject in Ch. 9. But to allow ourselves to 
forget the importance music may assume in certain cases of African poetry 
is to minimize the intricacy and full aesthetic appeal of these instances of 
oral literature. 


Before proceeding to the main part of the book, there are a few general 
points to make about presentation and the nature of the literature involved. 
First, there is the question of the categories I have used to present the 
material. An immediate problem is how to differentiate between 'prose' 
and 'poetry'. Though some cases seem to fall clearly under one or the other 


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3. The Social, Linguistic, and Literary Background 77 

heading, the distinction between the two is not always self-evident. I have 
in fact begged the question by making a firm division between the parts 
devoted to 'prose' and to 'poetry' respectively. This however has been done 
more for convenience than in an attempt to make a definite typology. The 
kinds of factors which it has seemed helpful to consider include: musical 
setting (most sung forms can reasonably be regarded as poetry); the intensity 
and emotion of expression; sometimes (but not always) rhythm, and tonal 
or syllabic rhyme (the latter infrequent except under Arabic influence); 
special vocabulary, style, or syntactical forms; local evaluation and degree 
of specialism (more marked with poetry than with prose); and, finally, the 
native classifications themselves. Such factors give some kind of indication 
of the form involved, though none is either necessary or sufficient. At best 
they are only a matter of degree and in many cases can provide no rigid 
distinctions (e.g. from Portuguese Africa, South West Africa, or the Central 
African republics). There is clearly a large amount of overlap, like the 
introduction of songs into stories (in some cases so marked that the 'story' 
becomes swamped in the singing) or the 'poetic' form of proverbs which 
are nevertheless usually classified as prose. But this kind of overlap and 
lack of clear differentiation need not worry us too much (unless, that is, our 
main preoccupation is the building of typologies), particularly when we 
recall the recent blurring of the traditional prose/verse distinctions in more 
familiar literatures. 

One obvious way to present the evidence might have seemed to be 
by geographical area, describing the different oral forms characteristic of 
different regions or peoples. But there are serious difficulties about such 
an approach. One is its tendency to become a mere catalogue — and a 
repetitive one at that, since such forms as stories, proverbs or work songs 
are very wide-spread, and perhaps universal. A more serious obstacle is 
the fact that so far there has only been the most haphazard sampling of the 
apparently huge oral literary resources of the continent. The selection has 
all too often depended not only on geographical accessibility and historical 
accident, but also on the preconceptions of the observer or the ease of 
recording, rather than on the evaluation of the people involved. Hence we 
have a vast number of proverbs, riddles, and stories but relative neglect of 
poetry or oratory. Only the literature of very few peoples has ever been at 
all adequately covered, (among them perhaps some of the southern Bantu 
languages Swahili, Fulani, Hausa, Dogon and some of the Kwa groups of 
the west African coast; but even in these cases there has not been systematic 
or rigorous covering) and for some whole areas little serious work appears 


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78 Oral Literature in Africa 

to be available (e.g. from Portuguese Africa, South West Africa, or the 
Central African republics). It is thus extremely difficult to draw any well-founded 
conclusion about the different forms recognized by a people at a given time. 
Since a clear distinction between prose and poetry seems to be associated 
with writing (and more particularly with printing), it is not surprising 
that the difference is somewhat blurred in non-literate cultures. 19 One can 
make a few broad generalizations: the significance of Arab-influenced 
forms in the north and east in such languages as Fulani, Hausa, or Swahili; 
the importance of elaborate panegyric among the Southern in contrast to 
some of the Central Bantu; the spread of drum literature over the tropical 
forest areas of West and West Central Africa (including the Congo); and 
the probability (yet to be fully explored) that some languages and cultures 
are more interested in certain forms of artistic expression than are others 
(e.g it has been observed (Horton, personal communication) that Yoruba 
seems to be an intensely 'verbal' culture with particular emphasis on 
poetry as against, say, Ibo or Kalahari where the main stress is rather on 
drama (including drumming and dancing) and perhaps oratory (see also 
Babalola's comment on (1966: v) on the Yoruba 'tonal, metaphor-saturated 
language which in its ordinary prose form is never far from music in the 
aural impression it gives and which has produced an extensive variety of 
spoken art'). But beyond this one can give little of an over-all picture. In this 
unsystematically covered field the argumentum ex silentio is not a good one 
and at present there is not enough evidence for a geographical approach. 

There are also drawbacks to the type of presentation I have adopted, 
i.e. grouping the material according to broad literary genres. A 'religious song', 
for instance, or a 'praise poem' may be very different in form, in relationship to 
other genres, or even in function in different areas, and an over-rigid insistence 
on the categories I am using could be misleading. Suffice it to say that the 
chapter headings I use here seem satisfactory enough for a brief introductory 
survey and have arisen fairly naturally from the material at present available; 
but that they are likely to prove inadequate for future detailed research. In fact 
local classifications of poetry in particular would seem normally to be far more 
complex than the handful of categories I employ. 

This leads on to a further point. To read about, say, the hunting songs of 
the Ambo, Christian lyrics of the Fante, proverbs of the Jabo, or stories of the 

19 Among them perhaps some of the Southern Bantu languages, Swahili, Fulani, Hausa, 
Dogon, and some Kwa groups on the West African coast; but even in these cases there 
has not been systematic or rigorous coverage. 


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3. The Social, Linguistic, and Literary Background 79 

Limba may give the impression that each of these are the most valued or even 
the only forms of oral art in the society concerned. In fact all the available 
evidence suggests that this would be misleading. In general terms, poetry 
seems to be more highly valued and specialized than prose— the opposite of 
the impression given in many of the numerous collections of African stories. 
It is also common for many different literary genres to be recognized in any 
one society. Among Akan-speaking peoples of Ghana, for instance, a large 
number of different poetic forms have been distinguished by Nketia (in 
his classic article in Black Orpheus 3, 1958 (Nketia 1958fr)). In terms of the 
mode of delivery, there are four broad classes of Akan poetry, each including 
many different types in detail: (1) spoken poetry, which covers many of the 
poems to do with chiefship, like the praises delivered at state functions; 
(2) recitative poetry half spoken, half sung, like funeral dirges, elegies by 
court musicians, and hunters' poetry; (3) lyric (i.e. sung) poetry, a large 
category comprising many different types of song each with its own 
conventions — among them songs of insult, heroic songs, sung interludes 
in stories, maiden songs, love songs, songs of prayer, exhilaration and 
incitement, cradle songs, and warrior songs; and finally (4) poetry expressed 
through the medium of horns or drums, in lyric, eulogistic, or proverbial vein. 
These instances, furthermore, are only selective (and cover only poetry, not 
prose), and many others could have been added in a more comprehensive 
catalogue (see for instance the sung forms mentioned in Nketia 1962: Chs. 2, 3, 
1963a). A similar account could be given of Yoruba literature from Western 
Nigeria. In prose there are stories of various kinds, riddles, proverbs, and 
praise appellations. In poetry, the variety can be sufficiently illustrated by 
merely listing some of the vernacular terms that describe different verse 
forms; esa, ewi, ijala, ram, ofo, ogede, oriki, ogbere, ege, arofo, odu ifa (see Babalola 
1966: vi; Lasebikan 1956: 46, 48; Gbadamosi and Beier 1959)). Poetic forms 
have probably been studied in more detail in West African languages than 
elsewhere, and it is possible that some of these languages may be particularly 
rich in poetic forms. There is no reason, however, to suppose that this kind 
of poetic diversity is without parallels in other parts of the continent. We 
hear, for instance, of many different forms among the Ngoni of Malawi, Ila 
and Tonga of Zambia, Luba of the Congo, Rwanda of Ruanda, Somali 
of North-East Africa, and many others. And further research will without 
doubt reveal similar instances throughout the continent. 

This kind of literary complexity can be assumed to lie behind many 
of the actual examples which are mentioned in this volume (Read 1937; 
Jones 1943; Kalanda 1959: 77-9; Burton 1943; Kagame 1947, 1951b, etc.; 


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80 Oral Literature in Africa 

Andrzejewski and Lewis 1964) practically all accounts to date give only a tiny 
selection from the manifold literary genres of any one society. The present 
exceedingly simple impression of African literature can be seen to rest more 
on lack of research than on lack of actual material. A real understanding of 
the oral literature of any single African people will only be possible with 
further detailed research and collection. More information is required not 
only of actual texts but also of the nature and interrelationships of all their 
literary genres: their conventional forms, content, occasions, exponents, 
and expected audience. 


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4. Poetry and Patronage 

Variations in the poet's position. Court poets. Freelance and wandering poets. 
Part-time poets. 

This chapter is intended to give some account of the conditions in which 
African oral poets produce their works, and the audiences to which they 
address themselves. However, even the most summary account of this 
topic is a matter of great difficulty. This is partly because of sheer lack of 
data. Even those who have spent time and care recording African texts 
have frequently taken next to no interest in the position of the authors or 
reciters. A related but more profound cause of confusion lies in the popular 
images which underlie the work of many commentators on African oral 
literature, images which suggest some general and simple pattern to which 
these poets are expected to conform. 

One commonly held view of the position of the poet among unlettered 
peoples seems ultimately to derive from the picture of the rhapsodist of the 
Homeric age. The bard is depicted as standing before the gathered lords 
to chant the heroic lays handed down through the generations, rewarded 
with honour and rich gifts. It seemed to some earlier writers natural to 
assume that African societies were at a certain evolutionary stage, one long 
since passed by Indo-European peoples, and that the type of poetry and 
of patronage apparently once found in the latter would be discoverable in 
the former. This image of the bard delivering his rude but stirring verses to 
barbaric audiences has gained a profound hold on the popular imagination 
from its vivid representation in literature as well as in scholarly works 
inspired by the concept of 'the heroic age'. 

There is another common image which presents an opposite picture. 
In this the poetry of non-literate peoples is seen as in some way arising 
directly and communally from the undifferentiated folk. In this case song 
is its own reward and the specialized role of the poet has not yet made its 


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84 Oral Literature in Africa 

In fact neither picture fits the varied nature of poetry in Africa: This will 
be immediately obvious: as soon as the question is raised it is self-evident 
that any study of the conditions and background of poetry in Africa can no 
longer afford to rely on such half-consciously held generalizations but must 
proceed to a much more rigorous and detailed investigation of the actual 
position of poets in the various societies. Some poets, it is clear already are 
associated with royal courts and receive reward as professionals. Others 
depend on private enterprise, perhaps wandering from patron to patron 
and living on their wits. Others gain their basic livelihood from farming 
or cattle-keeping (or whatever the local basis of subsistence may be), but 
are marked out by their expert skill on special occasions. Finally, in some 
contexts poets are not set apart from their fellows in terms of training, 
reward, or position. Indeed, almost every category of relationship between 
poet and audience can be found in Africa in one context or another. These 
differences are not confined to different geographical areas but can be 
discovered even within a single society. Even in one culture (Hausa or 
Fulani, for instance, or, to a lesser extent, Ashanti) one can sometimes see 
the coexistence of a learned and a more popular tradition, and it is common 
for many different genres of poetry to be recognized simultaneously, each 
with its own type of performer, reward, and occasion. No single picture 
can cover all these variations and even the most cursory account of poetry 
in Africa must begin by insisting on the variety before going on to discuss 
certain common patterns. 


The practice of poetic composition and performance as a specialist art is 
not uncommon in Africa. Poetry is, by and large, differentiated from prose 
as being marked by greater specialism. The most specialized genres of 
poetry occur in association with royal courts. The other familiar form of 
patronage — religion— is also relevant, but in an organized form it is less 

In the traditional kingdoms of Africa, with their royal courts and clearly 
marked differences in wealth, power, and leisure, court poetry flourished. 
Poets were attached to the courts of powerful kings, to the retinues of 
nobles or lesser chiefs, and to all those who had pretensions to honour 
and thus to poetic celebration in their society. The speciality of these court 
poets was, of course, panegyric, a form illustrated in the following chapter. 
One can cite the elaborate praise poems of the Zulu or Sotho in southern 


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4. Poetry and Patronage 85 

Africa, the poems of the official singers of the ruler of Bornu, the royal 
praises of the Hausa emirs, the eulogies addressed to rulers in the various 
kingdoms of the Congo, and many others. In all these areas the ruling 
monarchs and their ancestors were glorified in poems, and real and ideal 
deeds were attributed to them in lofty and effusive language. The court 
poets sometimes had other functions too. Preservation of the historical 
record and of genealogies, for example, was often a part of their art, and it 
is sometimes suggested that this was at times a distinctive activity carried 
on in its own right. But in spite of repeated assertions about this, 1 there are 
few details about the actual performance or expression of historical poetry 
as distinct from panegyric, and we have to content ourselves with vague 
generalizations. 2 It is clear, at least, that a knowledge of accepted history 
in the sense of the glorification of the great deeds of royal ancestors or 
present rulers was a necessary part of the cultivation of panegyric poetry, 
and that praise poems are a fruitful source of the currently authorized 
interpretations of certain historical events and genealogies. What we 
always come back to in the productions of these court poets is the adulatory 
aspect, giving rise to poetry of profound political significance as a means of 
political propaganda, pressure, or communication. 

The actual position and duties of these court poets vary in different 
areas. In some cases a poet holds a single clearly recognized office among 
a ruler's entourage. This was so with the Zulu and other Bantu kingdoms 
of southern Africa where not only the paramount king but also every chief 
with any pretensions to political power had, wherever possible, his own 
imbongi or praiser. This was an official position at the court, important 
enough to the rulers to have survived even the eclipse of much of their 
earlier power. The imbongi's profession was to record the praise names, the 
victories, and the glorious qualities of the chief and his ancestors, and to 
recite these in lengthy high-sounding verse on occasions which seemed to 
call for public adulation of the ruler. The poet had two duties: to remember 
and to express the appropriate eulogies. Though these praises tended to 
have a set and recognized form (particularly those of dead rulers), the 
poet's task did not consist of mere memorizing. The praises had no absolute 
verbal immutability, and emotional and dramatic force in actual recitation 

1 For example on the Yoruba (Johnson 1921: 125), Fon (Herskovits 1958: 20-1); and the 
general comments in Notes and Queries on Anthropology 1951: 204, and Vansina 1965: 148-9. 

2 On the question of 'epic' and historical poetry generally see the note appended to this 


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86 Oral Literature in Africa 

was expected of a successful imbongi. The lofty strain of these Zulu eulogies 
and the impressiveness of their delivery can be pictured from a few lines 
taken from the praises of a Zulu king; they glorify the swiftness and 
completeness of his victory over the foe: 

Faster- th an- the-sun-before-it-has-risen! 

When it rose the blood of men had already been shed. 

The Bush, 'the Buck-catcher', caught the men of Sekwayo's. 

He made men swim who had forgotten how, 

Yes! even in the pools! . . . 

The tobacco fields rotted even to pulp! 

The wrapping-mats were finished at Banganomo; 

At (the kraal) of Kuvukuneni, 

At that at Mdiweni, even Vimbemsheni's, 

At that at Bukledeni, 

At that at Panyekweni (Grant 1927: 227) 

In many West African kingdoms the pattern is more complicated. A wholeband 
of poets is often involved, the various members making their own specialist 
contributions to the performance. Musical as well as verbal elements play a 
part, so that the skills of many different performers are necessary. Among the 
Ashanti, for instance, there were not only minstrels (kwadwumfo) to recount 
the deeds of past kings whenever the living king appeared in public, but also 
royal horn-blowers and a band of court drummers especially appointed as 
part of the ruler's formal entourage and over whose performances he held a 
kind of monopoly. On state occasions these drummers provided both music 
and the type of 'drum poems' described in a later chapter— the drum-beats 
or notes of the horn being 'heard' as actual words, praising the ruler and his 
predecessors and commemorating the glorious victories of the past. Such 
performances were an essential part of state occasions: at state receptions at 
the palace or out of doors; in processions to display the regalia or visit some 
sacred spot; and at national festivals, state funerals, and political functions 
like the installations of new chiefs or the swearing of oaths of allegiance 
by sub-chiefs. 3 Again, in the old and powerful kingdom of Dahomey there 
was not just one but a series of royal orchestras charged with praising the 
power of the royal dynasty, the high deeds of past kings, and the glory of 
the present ruler. Every morning in Abomey concerts were held by the 

3 See Nketia 1963b: Chapter 10; and Meyerowitz 1952: 19-20. Similar musical groups are 
found in the retinues of other Ghanaian chiefs (e.g. Ga, Adangme, or Ewe), charged with 
the duty of performing praise chants as well as processional and dancing music (Nketia 
1962: 18-19). 


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4. Poetry and Patronage 87 

main state orchestra before the royal palace, and when the king went out it 
accompanied him to sing his praises (Da Cruz 1954: 13). A final well-known 
West African example is that of the maroka teams of praisers still associated 
with the wealthy and cultivated Islamic emirates of the Hausa of Northern 
Nigeria. These highly specialized teams are attached permanently to the 
office of the king, and, to a lesser extent, to that of District Heads. Smith 
describes the king's team: 

The king's musicians and maroka form an organized group containing one or 
more titular series and effective authority hierarchies. The group is both more 
numerous and specialized in its musical functions, and more permanently 
attached to the title, than are the teams linked to District headships, which are 
similarly organized. Many of the royal maroka proudly describe themselves 
as royal slaves, and point to the fact that their ancestors held titles as royal 
musicians under earlier kings. It seems that there is at least a core of such 
maroka hereditarily attached to the throne. The king's musical troupe is also 
peculiar in containing one marokiya (female praiser), who formerly had 
the title of Boroka in Zaria, but is nowadays known as Zabiya (the guinea- 
hen) from the shrill ululating sound which it is her function to let out at 
odd moments, such as during the king's address to his assembled subjects 
after Saltan. Other specialized musical functions in the royal troupe include 
blowing on the long silver horns or shorter wooden ones, playing on the 
taushe (a small hemispherical drum), and singing the royal praises in Fulani, 
the last being the task of maroka recruited from among the Bombadawa 
Fulani. Royal maroka are in constant attendance at the palace, and announce 
the arrival of distinguished visitors such as the Resident, Divisional Officer, 
District Chiefs, and the like, by trumpet fanfares, drumming, and shouting. 
They also salute the king on the Sabbath eve and nightly during the annual 
fast of Ramadan, when the royal drums (tambari) are regularly played. The 
king's maroka address no one except their master, unless to herald visitors 
into his presence. They are allocated compounds, farm-lands, and titles by 
the king, who may also give them horses and frequently provides them with 
clothes, money, or assistance at weddings as well as with food .... As befits 
their position, the royal maroka are unique within the state and work only 
as a team (Smith 1957: 31). 4 

Nothing has been said about the Interlacustrine Bantu kingdoms of East Africa: there 
is in fact surprisingly little evidence about any formal office of court poet(s) there, 
though the Chadwicks report a personal communication by Roscoe about a chief at the 
Ganda royal court responsible for the recitation in poetical form of royal genealogies 
(Chadwicks iii 1940: 576; also Roscoe 1911: 35). It is possible that some of the functions of 
court poets, such as adding pomp and ceremony to the king's public appearances, were 
in East Africa fulfilled by musical performances with less stress on the verbal element, 
e.g. by the Ganda royal drummers described in Roscoe: 25ff. 


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88 Oral Literature in Africa 

In spite of differences in status and medium of expression, there are obvious 
similarities in the positions of all these court poets. They all depended on 
royal or chiefly patronage, given them in an official capacity and often 
implying exclusive rights over their services. Their performances were 
public with the emphasis, it appears, on their ceremonial functions rather 
than their entertainment value. And their audiences were primarily those 
who attended either the royal court or state occasions in the royal capital. 
To some extent this type of poetry must also have filtered down to other 
levels of society, with every local chief and leader attempting to follow the 
model of the ruler. But it seems that it was at the centre that court poetry 
and music were cultivated in their most specialized and exclusive form. 

Many of these court poets seem to have been true professionals in the 
sense that they gained their livelihood from their art. Their official position 
at court presumably gave them a share in the greater luxury and leisure 
of court life, though the degree must have varied from area to area— more 
marked, say, in the wealthy and specialized Hausa emirates than in the 
kingdoms of southern Africa. However, the exact economic position of 
court poets is obscure. There is little detailed evidence about, for instance, 
the relative wealth of specialized poet and ordinary subject, or how far 
court poets could count on steady economic support as distinct from 
occasional lavish gifts. The whole subject merits further investigation. 

The question of specialized training is also not very clear. That 
apprenticeship in some sense was involved is obvious, but this was probably 
sometimes of an informal kind, perhaps particularly when, as with the 
Hausa or the Yoruba, there was some hereditary tendency. In the case of 
highly specialized skills, however, there must also be a certain amount 
of quite formal training. This is so with Ashanti players of the speaking 
drums (Nketia 1963fr: 156-7), the Fang mvet singers (Towo-Atangana 1965: 
172), or the highly specialized bards of Ruanda. 

It is worth considering the Rwanda school of poetry and its complex 
corporation of poets in some detail. They are among the few official poets 
of Africa whose life and learning have been described at all fully and they 
provide a striking instance of the specialized and learned artistic tradition 
which can develop in a once-termed 'simple' society 5 

In the highly centralized traditional kingdom of Ruanda, the royal 
poets had their own association and were officially recognized as holding 
a privileged position within the state. They were in charge of the delivery 

5 The account here is based mainly on Kagame 1951b, esp. pp. 22ff. 


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4. Poetry and Patronage 89 

and preservation of the dynastic poems whose main object was to exalt the 
king and other members of the royal line. This was only one branch among 
the three main types of Rwanda poetry (dynastic, military and pastoral) 
which corresponded to the three pivots of their society (king, warrior, and 
cattle). It was in turn divided into three sub-types, different genres through 
which the king's praises could be declaimed. 

A court poet was known as umusizi iv'Umwami (dynastic poet of the 
king). This category included a number of poets, both those with the 
inspiration and skill to compose original works, and those (the bards) 
who confined themselves to learning and reciting the compositions 
of others. The court poets have always had their own association — the 
Umutzve iv'Abasizi, 'band of dynastic poets' — comprising those families 
officially recognized as poetic. The office of president of this band, the 
Intebe y'Abasizi, was previously restricted to a member of the clan that was 
first traditionally associated with the profession of poet. More recently 
the president has been the most conspicuous of the royal poets, a role 
that has tended over the last few generations to become a hereditary one. 
The president had the responsibility of organizing the poetry officially 
needed by the royal court for any particular occasion, including both 
ceremonial affairs and discussions on points of tradition. This he was in 
a position to do because of the attachment of a number of official poets 
to the court. Each of the recognized families of the poetic association had 
to be permanently represented there, if not by a creative poet, at least by 
a bard capable of reciting the poems particularly known by that group. 
In the reign of Yuhi V Musinga, for example, there were nine royal poets 
holding such official positions, each on duty for a month. In addition 
there were a number of unofficial bards, also members of poetic families, 
who gathered in large numbers around the court and could be called on 
if necessary. 

Both the poets themselves and the recognized poetic families had 
a privileged position in Rwanda society. They held hereditary rights 
like exemption from the jurisdiction of the civil chiefs and from certain 
servile duties. This applied even to ordinary bards and individual 
amateurs — so long as they were able to recite certain poems by heart, they 
were automatically regarded as direct servants of the crown. The exact 
economic position of the official court poets is not fully described; but 
the presentation of a poem to the king normally earned the gift of a cow — 
perhaps more — and in a society in which economic, social, even political 
worth was measured in terms of cattle, this was no mean reward. 


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90 Oral Literature in Africa 

The poems themselves were exceedingly elaborate and sophisticated, 
with a specialized mode of expression mastered only by the corporation of 
poets and the intelligentsia of the society. The style was full of archaisms, 
obscure language, and highly figurative forms of expression. 6 The sort of 
sentiments and phraseology involved, elevating the king as the centre and 
ideal of Rwanda society, can be glimpsed from a few lines extracted from a 
long dynastic praise poem of the impakanizi genre: 

II me vient a l'esprit une autre parole du Roi, 

Lui Source intarissable, fils de la Souveraine, 

Je me suis rappele que ce Refuge devait introniser un Roi, 

Leguel deviendrait l'objet de mes hommages des qu'investi. 

II n'y a pas d'epoque ou le Rwanda n'eprouve des perplexites, 

O Artisan-des-lances, souche du Chef des Armees: 

Personne ne jugera a l'encontre de ta decision. 

En ce jour-la des preparatifs minutieux, 

O Empoigneur-d'arc, descendance du Svelte, 

Ta marche a bmle les etapes accoutumees. 

Un conflit arme dans le palais meme s'etait declanche, 

L'Irreprochable seul luttant en personne, 

Nous, hommes, la terre faillitnous engloutir vivants. (Kagame 1951fo: 117-8) 

The poems are clearly the conscious product of a learned and specialist 
intellectual tradition. 

The skilled and separate nature of this poetry is further evident from the 
existence of specialist training, particularly in the skill of recitation. Among 
the Rwanda, somewhat unusually, part of the production of their oral 
literature was through memorization of received versions of the poems, and 
the attribution of personal authorship was the rule rather than the exception. 
The praise poems were often repeated by bards with little change from one 
occasion to the next, and there seems to have been a conscious effort to 
preserve the exact words of the text. From an early age, children of the 
recognized poetic families had to learn poems by heart. Though this took 
place within the family, at first at least, it was under the general supervision 
of the president of the association of poets who was ultimately responsible. 
Local representatives of the president called frequent gatherings in the 
open air at which the youths of the privileged poets' families exhibited 
their art in recitation. Those who showed themselves to good advantage 
were given a reward by their family, perhaps even a cow as 'recompense 

6 See Kagame 19516: 14f£. on the three main types of figurative language which he 
designates, respectively, as synonymique, homonymique, metonymique. 


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4. Poetry and Patronage 91 

de felicitation': In this way future court poets and reciters underwent a 
long and rigorous apprenticeship, one necessary both for the mastery of 
the actual poems already extant and for acquiring the vocabulary imagery 
and subject-matter which formed the traditional basis of any future 

In Ruanda then we see the development of a strikingly specialized class of 
court poetry one designed not for everyday recitation to the people at large, 
but for performance among other members of this specialist group, and, 
above all, for the king himself. The royal court was the centre of patronage— 
in fact in most important genres of Rwanda poetry the court held a near 
monopoly— and the Rwanda assumed it to be basic to the production of 
specialist poetry, being both its central stimulus and its most valued context. 

Clearly not all African court poetry took so highly specialized and 
restricted a form. But it can serve as an extreme instance of one important 
type of patronage for the poet in traditional Africa. It must be added, 
however, that this particular patronage— the royal court— is in many 
areas increasingly a thing of the past. This is not because of any decline 
of interest in poetry or in praise, for both continue to flourish in different 
contexts and with new patrons. Praise poems crop up as flattery of political 
leaders or party candidates, and can be heard on the radio or at political 
meetings; they can be seen in written form in newspapers; and they even 
appear under the auspices of commercial recording companies. But often 
the older royal courts with their official retinues and monopoly of the most 
highly professionalized poetry have become less attractive as political 
and economic centres, and many of the traditional court poets have either 
abandoned their art or turned to other more lucrative patrons. 


Unlike court patronage, religious patronage in Africa is relatively limited. 
Islam, it is true, has in certain areas played a potent role in the stimulation 
of verse on religious and historical topics. But this has not been through 
the direct patronage of an organized church so much as through the 
historical association of Islam with Arabic culture in general, so that 
Islamic scholars were also sometimes engaged in the transmission within 
their own societies of local compositions based on Arabic models. 7 These 

7 For further comments on Islamic religious poetry see Chapter 7. 


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92 Oral Literature in Africa 

were primarily designed for the academic few, qualified by learning to 
produce or appreciate such pieces, and were often written down, though 
wider dissemination in other spheres of society sometimes took place 
orally. Among such peoples as the Swahili, Fulani, or Hausa it appears that 
such composers held honoured positions (and presumably also economic 
resources) primarily because of their Koranic learning, their association 
with royal courts, or, in some cases their noble birth. 8 

Ethiopia is one important exception. Here there is a long history of 
patronage of the arts by the Coptic Christian Church. This includes a 
vast amount of literature which, being in every sense a written one, falls 
outside the scope of this book. There was also, however, a certain amount 
of oral ecclesiastical poetry by the dabteras or professional religious poets. 
Besides long written poems their work also included oral compositions like 
extemporized hymns at church festivals and similar occasions. Their most 
famous product was the qene, a short witty poem, highly artificial, of which 
there were said to be at least ten different types. These were marked by 
great obscurity of style, extreme condensation, delight in the use of puns, 
and an abundance of metaphors and religious allusions. In keeping with 
their highly specialized nature the qene demanded prolonged intellectual 
training for their mastery, and we hear of schools of rhetoric designed to 
train poets in the art of qene composition. We may also suppose that their 
audiences were correspondingly restricted. Indeed it seems to be the other 
important class of professional Ethiopian poets, the non-religious azmaris, 
who were found among all classes of society and thus reached wider 
audiences (Chadwicks iii 1940: 524 ff) while the dabteras preserved their 
specialist and intellectual type of versification. 

More recently, Christian missions have made their contribution to 
the encouragement of oral literature. As yet, this seems mainly to be of 
the more or less extempore type — a worshipper declaiming or leading the 
singing in the course of a service — and has probably not produced any 
highly specialized poets. 9 But much more may yet come of this type of 
religious patronage, and it is possible that this might be one of the growing 
points in the further development of oral literature in Africa. 

For example, the Cameroons Fulani modibbo, who was at once an official writer, a 
narrator, and a court poet Mohamadou 1963: 68). 

Or so it seems from the sources. But much more investigation needs to he made of the 
role of the local preacher in this respect (and of course in the sphere of oratory many of 
these preachers make their own contributions to oral art week after week). 


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4. Poetry and Patronage 93 

Apart from the patronage of these larger religious movements, we also 
find poetry evoked by more localized cults. This is particularly marked in 
the non-Islamic parts of West Africa where there are specialized cults to 
the deities of the various West African pantheons. Priests of some of the 
gods among, say, the Yoruba of Nigeria or Fon of Dahomey seem to be fully 
professional, sometimes to have undergone many years of training. This is 
true in particular of the priests of Ifa (described in Chapter 7) who spend 
at least three years as apprentices learning the lengthy verses and stories 
pertaining to this oracle-god. The gods each have their own lengthy and 
allusive praises which must be mastered by their priests, who are, it seems, 
responsible for both their recitation and, ultimately, their composition. 
Such professional priests receive direct or indirect recompense in virtue 
of their religious office and in this way have a certain amount of leisure 
to devote to the practice of poetry. However, fully professional priests are 
by no means the rule in these societies; they seem to be more typical of the 
highly organized and wealthy kingdoms, like those of the Akan, Fon, or 
Yoruba. But even in these areas priests are often only part-time experts who 
also rely on other means of subsistence. Their relationship to their public 
is more like that discussed in section iv below: they are experts who only 
appear on particular occasions when they display their art in return for 
direct reward. 

In spite of some exceptions, one cannot really speak of religion as 
having the same outstanding connection with the arts in Africa as it has 
sometimes held elsewhere. In terms of specialization of the poet's role or 
of the complexity of the verse itself, it does not seem to be anything like 
as important as royal and courtly patronage. The interpretation of poetry 
which connects it directly with the religious role of the seer would not, 
therefore, in its obvious sense at least, derive much support from the data 
on oral literature in Africa. 


Another large category among oral poets in Africa is that of the freelance 
specialist, a poet who moves from place to place according to where he can 
find a wealthy patron or audience prepared to reward him in return for his 
poems. This type of poet may shade into the official court poet, but even if he 
spends a certain amount of time at the courts he does not hold an official and 
exclusive position. He relies on occasional rather than permanent employment. 


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94 Oral Literature in Africa 

Such independent professional poets are particularly common in West 
Africa, the coastal areas of East Africa, and Ethiopia, where both the degree 
of specialization and the existence of relatively large quantities of movable 
wealth from which poets can be subsidized make it feasible for them to gain a 
livelihood in this manner. The existence of court poets may actually facilitate 
the development of this type of freelance professional tradition. Court poetry 
is what local chieflets or wealthy commoners would like to hear declaimed 
around them; and many of those wondering singers and poets have found 
lucrative patrons in men who wish to hear addressed to themselves some 
semblance of the praises ultimately due to the rulers. It is not surprising 
then to find frequent instances of the coexistence in one society of both 
official poets at courts, and roving poets in other spheres of the kingdom. 
This is true, for instance, of the Hausa roaming singers, the counterparts 
of the royal praise bands already mentioned. Among the Nzakara of the 
Sudan the trained professional poet, a singer accompanying his words on 
the harp, gains his livelihood either at the court of the prince or, alternatively, 
by moving from village to village, ready to vilify a chief who does not 
entertain him up to the standard of his expectations, or singing the glorious 
ancestry of one who does de Dampierre 1963: 17). Such singers can exploit 
the hierarchy of political power without an official permanent attachment 
to any one individual. 

Figure 10. Tayiru Banbera, West African bard singing his Epic of 
Bamana Segu (photo David Conrad). 

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4. Poetry and Patronage 95 

For these unattached poets, generosity and economic resources are as 
great an attraction as the political power connected with state office. Thus 
where there is a distinction between the distribution of wealth and that of 
aristocratic political power, the former may be a particular focus for poetic 
activity. We hear, for instance, of the wealthy but low-born Hausa man who 
is a prey to poets who sing of his high descent— or at least significantly 
omit any oblique suggestion of commoner birth (Smith 1957: 31) — in return 
for large rewards. Poets naturally turn to the patronage of well-off men. In 
Pemba, an area in which the development of verse is probably unequalled 
along the whole of the East African coast, there have until recently been large 
numbers of poets, each with his band of pupils, esteemed and patronized 
by the wealthy Arab landowners. These poets lived in or around the main 
centres or by the clove plantations and delighted their patrons with poems 
expressed in the traditional mainland forms on subjects inspired by local 
events Whiteley 1958). Nowadays another lucrative source can be found in 
commercial concerns— record companies and broadcasting in particular— 
and in some areas these are now becoming a potent if erratic source of 
patronage to the freelance poets. 

The poet's reliance on their art and their wits for a livelihood also affects 
the subject-matter of their compositions. Overt begging, innuendo, and 
even threats towards individual patrons are much more marked a feature 
of this poetry than in the praises and occasional verse associated with state 
ceremonials, the normal context of the official court poetry. The element of 
entertainment rather than formal pomp is perhaps also more to the fore. 
Whatever their individual media, at any rate, it is certain that some of these 
poets have been able to amass large fortunes and have sometimes gained 
the general reputation of being avaricious and mercenary (Smith 1957: 
38). Unlike court poets, their performances are not at the service of one 
exclusive patron, and they can move on (or threaten to move on) to another 
patron who is prepared to give them a better price. 

It is not surprising that these poets have sometimes been the object 
of fear and suspicion as well as of admiration, and the reward given to a 
poet by his temporary patron may seem to be more like a buying off than 
any positive appreciation of his talents. This comes out very clearly in, for 
instance, Smith's description of the arts of the roving solo singer among 
the Hausa (Smith 1957: 39). The singer arrives at a village and finds out 
the names of the important and wealthy individuals in the area. Then he 
takes up his stand in public and calls out the name of the individual he has 
decided to apostrophize. He proceeds to his praise songs, punctuated by 


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96 Oral Literature in Africa 

frequent and increasingly direct demands for gifts. If they are forthcoming 
in sufficient quantity he announces the amount and sings his thanks in 
further praise. If not, his innuendo becomes gradually sharper, his delivery 
harsher and more staccato. This is practically always effective — all the 
more so as the experienced singer knows the utility of choosing a time 
when all the local people are likely to be within hearing, in the evening, 
the early morning before they have left for the farm, or on the occasion 
of a market which leaves no escape for the unfortunate object singled out 
for these 'praises'. The result of this public scorn is normally the victim's 
surrender. He attempts to silence the singer with gifts of money or, if he has 
no ready cash, with clothes or a saleable object like a new hoe. Similar types 
of pressure are used by groups of Hausa praise singers in the towns. Here 
they mainly address themselves to the nouveaux riches, relatively wealthy 
men like builders, commission agents, and the larger farmers. People with 
officially recognized high status through noble birth, religious position, 
or high government employment are not attacked in this way, but people 
from other areas or local people of low birth are picked on even if they are 
in government pay. Again the declamation begins as praise, but failure to 
pay soon leads to a hostile tone. Instead of laudatory remarks about his 
ancestry, prosperity, and political influence, the victim soon hears innuendo 
on all these themes, as well as derogatory references to his occupation, 
reputation, political integrity— and, of course, his meanness. There is never 
open mention of 'the ultimate insult— imputation of ambiguous paternity', 
but this lies behind the increasing pressures on the man addressed (Smith 
1957: 38). In view of the effectiveness of this type of poetic pressure— the 
extraction of money by virtual blackmail— it is small wonder that attempts 
have been made in some Hausa kingdoms recently to forbid or limit the 
activities of these singers (Smith 1957: 38). 10 

Though there are few other such detailed accounts of the pressures of 
professional poets, it is clear that this pattern is not uncommon in West 
Africa. Similar powers have been exercised by the well-known Mande 
musicians, for instance, or the Senegalese 'griots'. The forceful way in 
which their counterparts in some of the more southerly areas too can sing 
at a chosen patron has to be seen to be believed. The praisers direct their 
verses and their music with such vehemence and volume that until they are 

10 That all freelance poets are not equally conventional, however, is apparent from Gidley's 
account of Hausa comedians who satirize and parody the usual praise songs (Gidley 
1967: 64-9). 


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4. Poetry and Patronage 97 

placated with a gift or by the intervention of some recognized authority, no 
business can go forward. 

From one point of view the power of freelance poets can be increased 
if they are regarded as foreign or at any rate set apart from the patrons to 
whom they address themselves. This can add to the fearsome quality of 
their words while at the same time making them free from the obligations 
which are binding on other members of the society. We find that this is the 
case with some freelance poets in the further western area of West Africa. 
The Mande-speaking musicians sometimes known in West African English 
as 'jellemen' (from Mandingo dyalo) are found (sometimes as professional, 
sometimes as part-time experts) throughout a wide area of the country 
outside their original home area. Throughout this region they exploit their 
abilities and extract rewards for their songs from wealthy and powerful 
families. 11 

An even more striking example are the 'griots' of Senegambia, poets 
belonging to a special low caste in the society. In view of the wide currency 
of this word in both French and English, it is worth saying a little more 
about the particular poets to whom it refers. In fact the term 'griot' gives a 
totally false impression of precision. Though it was presumably originally 
a translation of the Fulani gaoulo (wandering poet or praiser) or Wolof gewel 
(poet and musician), it is now popularly used as a term to refer to almost 
any kind of poet or musician throughout at least the French-speaking areas 
of West Africa. 12 In the process it has acquired a kind of quasi- technical ring 
which, it seems, is felt to absolve those using it from any further detailed 
description of the status of these artists. But clearly not all poets throughout 
this wide area answer to the more precise description of the term: they 
do not all belong to special castes and are not necessarily regarded as of 
inferior status. 13 

11 See also Zemp 1964. 1 came across a number of these musicians in northern Sierra Leone 
in 1961 plying their trade in the non-Mandingo communities of the country, as did Laing 
over a century earlier (Laing 1825: 132-3). 

12 It has also been suggested that the term is connected with the Arabic oawwal (narrator 
of the Soufi sect) (Blair in Diop 1966: xix). It apparently first entered French through the 
early French travellers to Senegal in the eighteenth century (see Zemp 1964: 375), and, as 
is well known, has since been taken up by the nigritude French literary movement. But 
a full study of the history and usage of this word in European languages, let alone its 
referents in West Africa, seems never to have been made (though see the discussion in 
Colin 1957, Ch. 3; and Rouget n.d.: 225-7) and should be well worth pursuing. 

13 In particular this seems not to apply to the authors of Muslim poetry, who, among some 
of the Fulani at least, tend to be of noble birth (Ba 1950: 173-4; Lacroix 1965: 31, 35-36). 
See also Belinga 1965: 116ff. on the mbom-mvet of Cameroun. 


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98 Oral Literature in Africa 

Those that concern us here, the poets of Senegambia and of the Western 
Fulani, were so regarded, however. Among the various castes into which 
society was divided, those of the poets and musicians came near the bottom. 
They were thus set apart from those to whom they addressed themselves 
and not unexpectedly met with a somewhat ambiguous attitude among 
other members of society— at once feared, despised, and influential. 
Some of these Senegambian griots specialized in shouting praises and 
reciting genealogies and had some kind of attachment to the various 
freeborn lineages; others sang praises of chiefs and leading men at public 
functions and could gain great influence with local rulers. Traditionally a 
Wolof geivel had the power to insult anyone and, as in other areas, could 
switch to outspoken abuse if no sufficient reward was forthcoming. Their 
membership of the special poetic caste gave them impunity, so that together 
with their low status they at the same time had freedom from the sanctions 
that deterred other members of society from open insult of their fellows. 
Here too some legal attempts have been made to limit their power, and it is 
significant that as the old caste system breaks down, thus in a sense raising 
the low status of the poet, this brings with it a decrease in his previous 
power to mock with impunity. 

The freelance professionals clearly have more scope than the court poets, 
who are exclusively employed, as it were, by the state (Anyumba 1964: 189-90). 
The poet can, indeed must, think about himself as well as his patron; he can 
more easily vary conventional styles and motifs than his official counterpart. 
There is no premium on verbal accuracy or even near accuracy as in the 
case of some of the politically sanctioned court poetry, and there is not the 
distinction between reciter and composer that was just discernible in some 
of the court poetry discussed. The audiences, too, tend to be wider, and 
there is a corresponding lack of a highly specialized or esoteric style. The 
public is still chosen from among the wealth and powerful, but depends 
more on entertainment and on communication and less on formal pomp. 

It is through poets like these that the poetry of a certain culture can 
become diffused over a wide area, even one covering different sub- 
cultures and languages. For instance, one of the characteristic results of 
the professional freelance poets (azmaris) in Ethiopia was that poets were 
found everywhere, from the courts to the poorer houses, to the roads, or to 
public gatherings, commenting on their audiences or on local events, a kind 
of gazette chantante in their reflection of contemporary public opinion. Their 
persons were sacrosanct and they were received honourably everywhere. 
In the opinion of the Chadwicks it was this which to a large extent led to 


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4. Poetry and Patronage 99 

the uniformity of Ethiopian poetry. 14 The same general point holds good 
for certain areas of West Africa. In parts of Senegambia, Guinea, and Sierra 
Leone, the cultural uniformities stretching over a wide area of differing 
societies and languages can be put down in part to the long history of 
wandering poets who could apparently travel unmolested even in wartime 
(Chadwicks, vol. 3, 1940: 25). Such poets give an international as well as a 
national currency to the conventions of their poetry in a way that formally 
appointed court poets or localized experts could never have done. 


So far we have been dealing with professionals or semi-professionals, those who 
are known first and foremost as poets and who depend primarily on their art. 
But there are also many less specialized poets to consider. These practitioners 
are sometimes found coexisting with their more professional colleagues, but 
they also sometimes appear as the most skilled proponents of the poetic art in 
cultures which, as in many of the traditionally uncentralized societies of Africa, 
do not possess full-time literary specialists. At these less professional levels 
women are often mentioned. Certain kinds of poetry are typically delivered or 
sung by women (particularly dirges, lullabies, mocking verses, and songs to 
accompany women's ceremonies or work), and each culture is likely to have 
certain genres considered especially suitable for women. 15 However, references 
to men seem to occur even more often and, with a few striking exceptions, 16 
men rather than women tend to be the bearers of the poetic tradition. 

Very often these poets earn their living in some other way, supplementing 
their incomes by their art. At times the poet's main reward may be in terms 
of honour rather than of more tangible goods, but usually some material 
return is forthcoming from his audience or temporary patron. These poets 
are often not equally expert in the whole field of oral art. Usually a poet 
becomes known for his exposition of a single genre of sung or spoken verse, 
one perhaps associated with a particular occasion when the poet-singer 
comes forward from the mass of his fellows to exhibit his art. 

14 For some further details of this rather complex organization in Senegambia see Gamble 
1957: 45; Silla 1966: 764-7; in Haut-Senegal and Niger, Delafosse iii 1912: 117-18; for the 
Toucouleur of Senegal, Diop 1965: 23; a useful bibliography is given in Zemp 1966. 

15 For example, the Fon wives' choruses praising chiefs, (Herskovits ii 1938: 322) the 
Hottentot sarcastic 'reed songs' (Hahn 1881: 28), Somali buraambur (Andrzejewski and 
Lewis 1964: 49), or certain named dancing songs at Limba memorial ceremonies. 

16 Notably the Tuareg (see Chadwicks iii 1940: 658ff). 


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100 Oral Literature in Africa 

Within this general category there are naturally many different degrees 
of expertise. Some poets hold a relatively specialized status, differing only 
in degree from that of the professionals discussed earlier. This seems to be 
true of some of the West African poets usually lumped together under the 
general name of 'griot' 17 or the non-professional poets of the Somali who 
build up an entourage of admirers in competition with others and hear their 
poems transmitted further by reciters who learn them by heart (Anyumba 
1964: 189-90). It is also true, although to a lesser degree, of the Luo nyatiti 
(lyre) player who generally acts as an entertainer in this uncentralized 
society of East Africa. As we have some detailed evidence (Anyumba 1964) 
about these particular singers, it is worth giving a fairly full description to 
illustrate the kind of part the poet may play in such a society. 

The great forte of the Luo nyatiti singer is the lament song. Funerals 
are celebrated on a grand scale and one essential part is the songs of the 
nyatiti player. He needs no special invitation for he is always welcome once 
the noise and bustle of the actual burial have subsided. From the singer's 
point of view there are various reasons why he puts in an appearance: he 
may come from sorrow at the loss of a friend or relative; to do his duty to 
a neighbour; to take advantage of the food and drink profusely available 
at funerals; and finally— a not insignificant motive— to make money from 
a large and admiring audience (here he may have to contend with a rival). 
He takes up his stance, singing at the top of his voice to the accompaniment 
of his lyre and the rattling of his ankle-bells. He sweats profusely with the 
effort, and consumes vast quantities of beer. Before him lies a plate into 
which those who accost him can drop their pennies. He is frequently called 
on to sing about the dead person, and, in preparation for this, he has a 
tune ready from his normal repertoire which can be modified to suit the 
occasion. He adds 'an uncle here and a grandfather there, together with 
any knowledge he may possess of the attributes of the deceased. The skill 
and beauty with which the musician is able to improvise at such moments 
is a measure of his musical and poetic stature' (Anyumba 1964: 189-90). 

These songs, involving the arts both of composition and of performance, 
are in fact usually soon forgotten after serving the purpose of the moment. 
Others, however, arise from more studied composition in preparation for 
the funeral. This is usually when the singer himself is deeply moved by the 
death or has some especially close link with the deceased. Here he creates 
a new song. He must consider and weigh up both the suitable melodic 

17 For example, some of the Ivory Coast singers mentioned in Zemp 1964. 


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4. Poetry and Patronage 101 

patterns and also the words and names to go with them. The process takes 
time and concentration, but the tune itself sometimes comes to the singer 
at an inspired moment. After some trials on his lyre, he then, on the actual 
occasion, sings with so much intensity and meaning that large gifts are 
showered on him. Indeed the song may gain such favour that he is begged 
to sing it later by his fans — and, after the due deposit of a few coins on 
his plate, he agrees. By then 'the song being freed from the solemnity of 
a funeral may rove from the fate of a particular individual to that of other 
people, and finally to the mystery of death itself (Anyumba 1964: 190). 

If the nyatiti singer's prime function is that of the lament, his art also 
extends to other spheres and occasions. He is called on to praise friends or 
relatives, to recount his personal experiences, to exalt kindness, hospitality, 
or courage, and to comment on current affairs. In all these he is judged by 
the degree to which he can unite the art of the musician/performer and that 
of the poet/composer; he is 'judged as much by his skill on the instrument 
as by his ability to weave a story or meditate on human experience. In this 
lies the real fascination of the nyatiti player' (Anyumba 1964: 187-8). 

This account of the nyatiti singer illustrates the kind of role which 
the part-time poet/musician can play in a non-literate society. His art is 
practised partly to fulfil social obligations and to share in ceremonies 
which are also open to others, but also partly for direct material reward. 
Some of his performances arise out of the ceremonial occasion itself, with 
his audience directly involved in the occasion; but others, particularly 
those by the most skilled singers, are specifically given at the request of 
admirers who patronize him and reward his performance. Finally, there 
are some occasions (and for some singers these may be in the majority) 
when the song produced is uninspired and stale, in spite of cleverly 
introduced modifications; while on other occasions the song is the product, 
and recognized as such, of the truly creative imagination of the singer. 

The position of the poet in many other African societies is unfortunately 
not often described in even the detail given in Anyumba's short article. 18 But 
it seems that the position and conditions of many of the more expert (but 
non-professional) poets are not unlike those of the Luo nyatiti singer. We 
frequently meet the same kind of balance between the social and the profit 
motive, the more and the less specifically 'artistic' occasion, the greater and 
lesser personal inspiration of the poet. 

18 See the excellent description of Yoruba ijala singers in Babalola 1966, especially chapters 
4 and 8. 


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102 Oral Literature in Africa 

Other African poets, however, have less general recognition than Luo 
singers. But there are still many specific occasions when they can exhibit 
their poetic skills. One frequent context is at meetings of the specialized 
associations characteristic of many parts of West Africa. The Yoruba, Akan, 
and others have hunters' societies each with their own special hunting 
songs. These are performed on festive occasions, at funerals of members of 
the group, and at other meetings of the association. The poets are there in 
their capacity as hunters, but one aspect of their craft, for some members 
at least, is skill in poetic composition and performance. These very 
part-time poets, then, are patronized by fellow-hunters and also at times 
by the public at large, as when the Yoruba ijala poet is especially invited 
to perform as a general entertainer on non-hunting occasions. Similar 
connections between specialist association and a specific genre of poetry 
exist among the Akan military associations, cults of particular deities 
among the Yoruba and others, secret societies, local churches, and some of 
the more formally organized cooperative work groups. In all these cases 
the primary context is that of the association, and the poet is fulfilling his 
social obligations as a member (though he may acquire a material profit 
in addition); special performances to wider audiences or for more direct 
reward seem to be secondary and in many cases not to occur at all. 

The various crucial points in the human life cycle also provide contexts 
for festivity and thus for artistic performance. Occasions such as initiations, 
weddings, or funerals provide fertile stimuli for poetic exhibition. Here again 
the range is wide — from occasions when those most intimately involved 
sing just as part of their general social obligations in the ceremony, to special 
appearances of famous artists or bands. Even within one society, different 
rituals may have different degrees of expertise considered appropriate 
to them. A good example of this can be seen in the contrast between the 
initiation ceremonies of boys and of girls among the Limba. An important 
part of the boys' ceremony consists of the all-night session during which 
the boys must demonstrate their skill and endurance in the dance before 
hundreds of interested spectators. A number of singer-drummers must be 
present. Therefore the best (part-time) artists in the boys' village or group 
of villages are called on to attend and are booked several weeks in advance. 
They receive numerous small monetary gifts during their performance, 
and the amount earned, when all the several contributions from the boys' 
relatives and the audience are counted up, may come to as much as a fifth 
or quarter of the average labourer's wage for a month. By contrast the girls' 
ceremony is a less celebrated affair. The singers are merely those who are 


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4. Poetry and Patronage 103 

in any case directly involved in the occasion, with no special reward due to 
them for their songs. Other Limba occasions provide yet another contrast. 
In their large-scale memorial rituals the most famous singers in the whole 
chiefdom area or beyond are begged to come to display their specialist art; 
they usually have no direct relationship to the principals in the ceremony— 
or if they have this is irrelevant— but take time off from their everyday 
pursuits to attend as specialists in return for the very large gifts their hosts 
undertake to provide. 

In some areas weddings are occasions for much singing and dancing, 
sometimes by those directly involved, sometimes by especially invited 
expert teams. Thus Hausa weddings, elaborate and complex affairs, 
require the presence of specialist maroka teams. These are independent 
and unattached bands who gain their livelihood partly from their craft 
and partly from subsistence farming (Smith 1957: 30-31, 32). They attend 
weddings largely for profit, and they are the principal beneficiaries of the 
costly gifts that are made publicly on these occasions. 

The kind of performance that can take place at funerals — another 
common context for poetry— has already been illustrated from the case 
of the Luo lament singer. A rather different type is provided by the Akan 
dirge singers. Every Akan woman is expected to have some competence 
in the dirge, and though some singers are considered more accomplished 
than others, nevertheless every woman mourner at a funeral is expected 
to sing— or run the risk of strong criticism, possibly even suspicion of 
complicity in the death (Nketia 1955: 18). Thus they perform as part of 
their general social responsibilities and their audiences hear and admire 
their performances as one aspect of the funeral rituals which they are 
attending, rather than as a specialist aesthetic occasion which demands 
direct recompense to the artist. Yet that even this relatively low degree of 
specialization can result in elaborate literary compositions, valued alike 
for their aesthetic merits and their social functions, should be clear from 
the detailed account of these dirges given by Nketia 1955 (summarized in 
Chapter 6). 

Besides such occasional poetry at the crucial points in the life cycle, 
there are other contexts in which the element of entertainment is foremost. 
Sometimes these actually hinge on organized competitions by poets, 
as used to be the case in several areas of East Africa. In Tanganyika, for 
instance, two singers of the same type of song, each leading his own group 
of members, sometimes decide to compete on an agreed day. In the interval 
they teach their followers new songs of their own composition. Then on 


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104 Oral Literature in Africa 

the day the two groups sing in turn at a little distance from each other. 
The victor is the singer who draws the greatest number of spectators to 
his side. Sometimes these competitions are arranged by the Sultan who 
also acts as umpire between the two insulting sides— for insults are also 
in order, and as each side has taken the trouble to find out their opponents' 
songs in advance, they have prepared suitably sarcastic replies to them 
(Koritschoner 1937: 57-59). 19 In other types of entertainment, the element 
of competition is absent and the emphasis is on the skill and expertise with 
which the artists make their specialized contribution to the occasion. At 
social gatherings among the Ila and Tonga of Zambia, for instance, a woman 
who is skilled in the special type of solo termed impango stands up and 
sings from her own personal repertoire. If she has close friends or relatives 
present, they too stand up to praise her song and present her with small 
gifts like tobacco or a sixpence (Jones 1943: 11). Some of the West African 
entertainments draw on more complex teams, with singer, drummers, and 
sometimes wind-instruments— like the Hausa teams who sometimes play 
for the young peoples' recreational associations (Evans-Pritchard 1940: 46 
ff; Lienhardt 1961: 13, 18f), or the Akan popular bands who perform for 
pure entertainment, often for dancing in the evenings. Their purpose is 
social and recreational, but they make some economic profit from their 
performances (Nketia 1963b: 157). 

This discussion of the various occasions and forms of poetry finally 
brings us to the times when there is practically no degree of specialization 
at all. This is particularly true of certain general categories of song in any 
society— in work songs, 20 children's verse, lullabies, or the chorus parts 
of antiphonal songs. There are also the times when every member of a 
society (or every member who falls into a certain category) is expected to 
have some competence in certain types of verse. Sotho boys, for instance, 
were all required to demonstrate proficiency in praise poetry as part of 
their initiation ceremonies, and had to declaim the praises of their own 
achievements and expectations before the crowd gathered to welcome them 
after their seclusion (although even there the common African practice of 

19 See also the Pemba competitions mentioned in Whiteley 1958, and the rather different 
Somali use of poetic combat as a means of publicity in war and peace in Andrzejewski 
and. Galaal 1963. 

20 Though even there the common African practice of balancing soloist and chorus gives 
scope for a certain degree of expertise by the leader. 


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4. Poetry and Patronage 105 

balancing soloist and chorus gives scope for a certain degree of expertise by 
the leader); among some of the Zambian peoples a young man had to sing 
a song of his own composition on the occasion of his marriage (Laydevant 
1930: 524). Not all contexts are as formal as this. We hear of the Nuer youth 
leading his favourite ox round the kraal in the evenings, in pride and joy 
leaping before it and singing its praises, or, again, of young Nuer or Dinka 
boys chanting their songs in the lonely pastures (Evans-Pritchard 1940: 
46ff; Lienhardt 1961: 13, 18ff) the lullabies which mothers in numberless 
societies sing to their babies; the spontaneous outburst of song over a pot 
of palm wine or millet beer in a Ghanaian village; the lyrics sung by Somali 
lorry drivers to shorten the tedium of their long journeys (Andrzejewski 
1967: 12) or the ability of the Congolese Mabale, or Rhodesian Shona, or 
West African Limba, or countless others to join in the choruses of songs led 
by their more expert fellows. In all these cases poetic facility has become 
no longer a specialist activity, but one which in some degree or other all 
individuals in the society are expected to have as a universal skill. 

It would clearly be impossible to relate all the occasions and audiences 
that there are for poetry, or all the roles that can be played by the African 
poet. But enough has been said to show that it is not only in societies 
in which there is courtly, aristocratic, or religious patronage, or marked 
cleavages of wealth or power, that the poet finds opportunity to exercise 
his skills. There are many egalitarian societies too, often those with little 
specialism in any sphere of life, in which nevertheless poetry can flourish— 
like the Ibo, the Somali, the Nilotic peoples of the Sudan, and many others. 
It is true that it does seem to be in court poetry, and occasionally in religious 
poetry, that we find the highest degree of specialism, and the longest and, 
in a sense, most intellectual poems. But they do not necessarily reflect a 
more sensitive understanding of language and of experience than, say, a 
Dinka youth's praise of his ox, which to him represents both his own role 
and 'the whole world of beauty around him' (Deng in Lienhardt 1963: 828) 
a lyric to accompany the dance, or the lullaby in which an Akan mother 
verbalizes her joy in her child in the world she knows: 

Someone would like to have you for her child 

But you are my own. 

Someone wished she had you to nurse you on a good mat; 

Someone wished you were hers: she would put you on a camel blanket; 

But I have you to rear you on a torn mat. 

Someone wished she had you, but I have you (Nketia 1958b: 18) 


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106 Oral Literature in Africa 


We have assumed that there is a conjunction, characteristic of oral poetry, 
between the performer and the composer. It is often futile, therefore, to 
ask about the circulation of a particular piece — those who 'circulate' it are 
themselves poets of a kind and make their contributions and modifications. 
It may be that many of them are not particularly good or original poets 
even in terms of their own culture, and make more of a contribution to the 
performance than to the composition. But the fact remains that this too is 
an essential part of the poetic skill of the oral practitioner, and that poems 
cannot reach their public without the interposition of such artists. 

There are, however, a few exceptions to the joint role of the poet which 
should be mentioned in conclusion. In some of the most highly specialized 
or technically complex poetry— Rwanda dynastic poetry, Yoruba Ifa 
literature, or Somali gabay — reciters may be distinguished from creative 
poets: the former are responsible for transmitting the poems of others, 
and for preserving the authoritative tradition for political or religious 
motives. Thus even if in fact the reciter does modify a poem, this aspect 
is played down and the poem is supposed to be merely transmitted by 
reciters in the traditional form. Thus certain poems may circulate in 
their own right, sometimes even with named authors (as in Ruanda or 

Another and very different class of poems where performance may be 
so much to the fore that the element of composition seems to vanish is that 
of dance songs, work songs, or songs accompanying children's games. Here 
the song is merely the background to some other activity, and repetition of 
known verses is more noticeable than poetic originality. Songs of this kind 
can become popular and spread over a wide area with incredible speed, to 
be supplanted after a time by new ones. Yet, as will appear in later chapters, 
even in these cases there can be modification and additions either in the 
musical aspects or in the words. Even if, for instance, the chorus remains 
more or less the same so that a superficial observer may be pardoned for 
considering it just another performance of the same old song, the soloist 
who leads the song and supplies the verses may in fact be making his own 
original musical and verbal contribution. 

A more accurate case of the true circulation of a poem independently 
of its composer is to be found in the areas where the existence of writing 
has led to the concept of a correct version which can be copied or learnt in 


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4. Poetry and Patronage 107 

an exact form. For indigenous African verse the writing is most often in 
Arabic script, and we find— as in Swahili, Hausa, or Fulani— a tradition 
both of the circulation of definitive versions of poems and of remembering 
the original authors by name. Such poems may also circulate by oral means, 
for actual literacy is often confined to the few, but they differ from fully 
oral compositions in that the roles of composer and reciter can be clearly 

In many cases it is difficult to assess how much emphasis should be 
laid on the two aspects of composition and of delivery. It is not easy to tell, 
for instance, how far the verse in any single instance is the product just 
of a performer reproducing well-known and prescribed forms with little 
contribution of his own, and how far it can also be put down to the arts 
of the creative poet; or how much one can attribute to the stimulation and 
participation of the audience or the emotion of the occasion itself. Many 
investigators have particularly emphasized the aspect of the second-hand 
reproducing of known traditional forms; and this interpretation has of 
course been especially popular with those very impressed by the concepts 
of communal creation or of the 'typical' poem and so on. 

In African literature one can of course encounter both the second-rate 
technician and the inspired artist— oral art is no exception in this. But 
when the role of the poet or singer is analysed in some detail, we are left 
wondering whether creative composition (either the spontaneous creation 
of the accomplished and sensitive artist or conscious long-drawn-out 
composition in preparation for later display) may not be rather more 
important than is often realized; and we may suspect that the playing 
down of this factor may be due as much to lack of investigation as to any 
basis in the facts. Without Anyumba's analysis, for instance, we could 
hardly appreciate the care and conscious art with which some Luo singers 
sometimes compose their songs, and would be more likely, in a common 
search for 'the typical lament' of the Luo, to omit any consideration of 
the individuality of the inspired Luo poet. The actual circumstances of 
composition and the personality and skill of individual poets deserve fuller 
consideration than they have yet received. 21 

21 A partial exception, with the main emphasis on the musical aspect, is Nketia's African 
Music in Ghana 1962. See also (besides references given earlier) Lacroix 1965 (on Adamawa 
Fulani), de Dampierre 1963 (Nzakara), Andrzejewski and Lewis 1964 (Somali), Babalola 
1966 (Yoruba). For some further remarks on composition see Chapter 9. 


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108 Oral Literature in Africa 

To others, as to me, this chapter must seem unbearably sketchy and 
impressionistic. A few of the points raised are explored a little further in 
later chapters which deal with some of the different genres of poetry and 
their exponents in various cultures. But the main reason for the gaps is 
ignorance, not lack of space. This must be in part because I have not read 
far enough in the sources to discover the answers to many of the questions 
I want to raise. But it is also that such factors as the general position of the 
poet, his poetic training, his economic situation, his relation to his audience, 
his patron, other poets, or the general culture of his time, his modes of 
composition and inspiration— all these have seemed to be of little interest 
to investigators, even those who have published excellent accounts of other 
aspects of oral literature. We know enough to be able to guess at the variety 
that can be found and that the simplistic pictures we opened with are not 
sufficient; but in practically no African society have these points been fully 
explored. This is the sphere above all in which there is the widest need and 
scope for further investigation. 


Epic is often assumed to be the typical poetic form of non-literate peoples, 
or at least of non-literate peoples at a certain stage. Surprisingly, however, 
this does not seem to be borne out by the African evidence. At least in the 
more obvious sense of a 'relatively long narrative poem', epic hardly seems 
to occur in sub-Saharan Africa apart from forms like the (written) Swahili 
utenzi which are directly attributable to Arabic literary influence. 

The term 'epic' appears in the titles of several collections or discussions 
of African oral literature 23 (perhaps partly because of the common 
expectation that it is likely to be a wide-spread art form). But almost all 
these works in fact turn out to be in prose, not verse — and often only brief 
prose tales at that. There are only a very few in verse form. 24 Many of the 
lengthy praise poems, particularly those in South Africa, do contain some 

22 This is admittedly a large subject to discuss in such a note, but some brief apologia 
seemed due to explain the non-appearance of the term in a work of this kind. For a 
helpful introduction to this rather controversial subject see Knappert in Andrzejewski 
and Messenger 1967. 

23 For example, Puplampu 1951; Larson 1963; Jacobs 1962a; Ba and Kesteloot 1966; 
Meillassoux 1967; Niane 1960; Cornevin 1966; Konate 1966; Ba and Kesteloot 1966; see 
also Clark 1963; Papadopoullos 1963; de Vries 1963 (chapter 7, 'The epic poetry of non- 
Indo-European nations', speaks of the 'epic poetry of the Fulbe'). 

24 See especially the discussion in Cornevin 1966 and the poems in Coupez and Kamanzi 1962. 


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4. Poetry and Patronage 109 

epic elements and provide the nearest common parallel to this form in 
Africa. Nevertheless, as will emerge in the following chapter, panegyric 
poetry concentrates far more on the laudatory and apostrophic side than 
on the narrative and cannot really qualify as 'epic' poetry in the normal 
sense of the word. 

The most frequent mentions come from the equatorial areas of the 
Congo, particularly among the Mongo-Nkundo peoples where 'epics' have 
been referred to by many scholars. But even these cases are somewhat 
doubtful. For one thing, many of these narratives seem quite clearly to 
be in prose merely interspersed with some sung pieces in the regular 
manner of African stories, 25 and there is no reason to believe that they 
differ radically in form from such prose tales. 26 And even if one waives the 
verse criterion, as is done in some definitions of epic, the Congo instances 
are still rather ambiguous. Take the most famous case of all, the 'Lianja 
epic' (see Chapter 13). In its most fully published form it runs to about 
120 pages of print for both text and translation— the sort of scale which 
might qualify— and covers the kinds of events we tend to associate with 
epic or heroic poetry: the birth and tribulations of the hero, his travels and 
leadership of his people, finally his death. But how far was this conceived 
of and narrated as a unity prior to its recording (and perhaps elaboration) 
in written form? 27 It is not at all certain that the traditional pattern was 
not in fact a very loosely related bundle of separate episodes, told on 
separate occasions and not necessarily thought of as one single work of 
art (though recent and sophisticated narrators say that ideally it should be 
told at one sitting, de Rop 1964: 17). By now, of course, its circulation as a 
composite written narrative among sophisticated audiences has, in a sense, 
established 'The Tale of Lianja' as a kind of (prose) epic in its own right, and 
this and similar forms in the Congo are well worth study— but it does not 
follow that we have discovered the existence of an oral epic tradition even 
in prose, much less in verse. 

A better case might be made out for the less celebrated mvet literature 
further to the west in Gabon, Spanish Guinea, and the Southern Cameroons 
(particularly among the Fang peoples). In this area many different kinds 

25 For example, Boelaert 1949 and 1957-58, de Rop 1959 and Biebuyck 1953. 

26 In spite of Bascom's description of the Lianja narrative of the Nkundo as a 'remarkable 
epic poem' (1964: 18), examination of the actual text suggests that seven-eighths or more 
is in prose. 

27 Edited or discussed in, among other sources, Boelaert 1949 and 1957-58; de Rop 1959 
(11. 323), 1958, 1964. 


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110 Oral Literature in Africa 

of songs are sung to the accompaniment of the mvet (a type of lyre), and 
these seem to include some historical poetry not unlike epic. 28 It has been 
described as 'art musical, art choregraphique, art theatral meme, mais 
surtout art de la parole qui retrace avec tant d'habilete la societe de nos 
peres pahouins' (Towo-Atangana 1965: 178). However there is as yet little 
published material readily available about this type of narrative poetry, 
and further study is needed before we can come to any conclusion about 
whether or not it can truly be described as 'epic'. 

All in all, epic poetry does not seem to be a typical African form. Some 
exceptions can of course be found (in addition to the controversial cases 
already mentioned), nearly all of which need further published elucidation; 29 
and we must not forget the many Arabic-influenced historical narratives in 
the northerly areas of the continent and the East Coast. Certain elements of 
epic also come into many other forms of poetry and prose. But in general 
terms and apart from Islamic influences, epic seems to be of remarkably 
little significance in African oral literature, and the a -priori assumption that 
epic is the natural form for many non-literate peoples turns out here to 
have little support. 

28 For example, Awona 1965, 1966 (a narrative poem of about 2,800 lines); Towo-Atangana 
1965 (discusses the various types of mvet songs, including the Angon Mana, a 'type 
of epic'); Towo-Atangana 1966; Echegaray 1955 (on 'primitive epic poetry' in Spanish 
Guinea); Belinga 1965, Ch. 4 (on Pahouin-Bantu of Cameroun). 

29 For example, the 'magnificent traditional sung historical . . . chants' of the Nigerian 
Idoma (R. Armstrong, personal communication), the Haya 'sung legend' (Tracey 1954a: 
238), or the Igala 'chanted stories' (John Boston, personal communication). 


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5. Panegyric 

Introductory: nature and distribution; composers and reciters; occasions. Southern 
Bantu praise poetry: form and style; occasions and delivery; traditional and 
contemporary significance. 


In its specialized form panegyric is the type of court poetry and one of the 
most developed and elaborate poetic genres of Africa. It seems to go with a 
particular ethos, a stress on royal or aristocratic power, and an admiration 
for military achievement. It is true that praises (including self-praises) 
also occur among non-centralized peoples, particularly those who lay 
stress on the significance of personal achievement in war or hunting (such 
as the Galla or Tuareg), and also that the use of 'praise names' is nearly 
universal. But the most specialized forms, and those which will primarily 
be considered here, are the formalized praises directed publicly to kings, 
chiefs, and leaders, composed and recited by members of a king's official 

First, something must be said about the 'praise names' which often form 
the basis of formal praise poetry. These are most often given to people but 
may also describe clans, animals, or inanimate objects, and they are usually 
explicitly laudatory. The Zulu king Shaka is praised in one of his names as 
'The Ever-ready-to-meet-any-challenge' (Grant 1927: 211), a Hausa chief as 
'Fearful and terrible son of Jato who turns a town into ashes', or an Ankole 
warrior as 'He who Does Not Fear Black Steel' (Morris 1964: 48). Such words 
or phrases occur frequently within the more complex form of a complete 
poem. Other 'praise' names are derogatory or concerned more with insight 
into inherent qualities than with praise. The Hausa 'praise names' (kirari), 
which in fact are often whole sentences and may refer to inanimate objects, 
illustrate this well. The stock praise name of molo (three-stringed guitar) 


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112 Oral Literature in Africa 

goes 'Molo, the drum of intrigue; if it has not begun it is being arranged' 
(in reference to the common association between the molo and immorality) 
(Fletcher 1912: 48); of the wind 'O wind you have no weight, but you cut 
down the biggest trees' (Merrick 1905: 76). Similar stock descriptions are 
used of people or animals: a butterfly is 'O Glistening One, O Book of God, 
O Learned One open your book' (i.e. the wings, compared to the Koran); 
a lion 'O Strong One, Elder Brother of the Forest'; while an old woman is 
addressed as 'O Old Thing, you are thin everywhere except at the knee, 
of flesh you have but a handful, though your bones would fill a basket' 
(Tremearne 1913: 174-6). These generalized and derogatory 'praise' names 
seem characteristic of some West African societies and appear in proverbs 
and riddles as well as conversation. They do not replace the more laudatory 
comments, however, for, also among the Hausa, every celebrated man has 
his own praise name which is used as a basis for prolonged praises by 
what Tremearne describes as 'professional flatterers' (1913: 177). Similarly 
among the Yoruba the oriki or praise names are permanent titles held by 
individuals, given to them by friends or, most often, by the drummers. 
Some individuals have several of these names, so that a collection of them, 
recited together, resembles a loosely constructed poem (also called oriki) 
about the person praised (Gbadamosi and Beier 1959). * 

In eastern and southern Africa cattle form a popular subject in praise poetry, 
and inanimate things like divining implements or even a train or bicycle are 
also praised. In West Africa, apparently unlike other areas, formal praises are 
addressed to supernatural beings. Hausa bori spirits for instance, each have 
their own praise songs (taki, kirari). When the spirit is to be called, its praise 
songs are played through one after another until it takes possession of one of 
its worshippers (Smith 1957: 33). The Yoruba praise poems to deities in Nigeria 
and Dahomey (as well as from the Yoruba in Brazil) are particularly famous. 2 
Each of the many Yoruba deities (orisha) has a series of praises expressed in 
figurative and obscure language, sung by the priest. Here, for instance, is a 
praise poem about Ogun, the god of iron, one of the most powerful deities, 
worshipped particularly by warriors, hunters, and blacksmiths: 

Ogun kills on the right and destroys on the right. 

Ogun kills on the left and destroys on the left. 

Ogun kills suddenly in the house and suddenly in the field. 

Ogun kills the child with the iron with which it plays. 

1 For further discussion of names and their significance see Chapter 16. 

2 The largest collection is in Verger 1957. 


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5. Panegyric 113 

Ogun kills in silence. 

Ogun kills the thief and the owner of the stolen goods. 

Ogun-kills the owner of the slave — and the slave runs away. 

Ogun kills the owner of thirty 'iwofa' [pawns] — and his money wealth and 

children disappear. 
Ogun kills the owner of the house and paints the hearth with his blood. 
Ogun is the death who pursues a child until it runs into the bush. 
Ogun is the needle that pricks at both ends. 
Ogun has water but he washes in blood. 

Ogun do not fight me. I belong only to you. 

The wife of Ogun is like a tim tim [decorated leather cushion]. 

She does not like two people to rest on her. 

Ogun has many gowns. He gives them all to the beggars. 
He gives one to the woodcock — the woodcock dyes it indigo. 
He gives one to the coucal — the coucal dyes it in camwood. 
He gives one to the cattle egret — the cattle egret leaves it white. 

Ogun is not like pounded yam: 

Do you think you can knead him in your hand 

And eat of him until you are satisfied? 

Ogun is not like maize gruel: 

Do you think you can knead him in your hand ti&x 

And eat of him until you are satisfied? 

Ogun is not like something you can throw in your cap: 

Do you think you can put on your cap and walk away with him? 

Ogun scatters his enemies. 

When the butterflies arrive at the place where the cheetah excretes, 

They scatter in all directions. 

The light shining on Ogun's face is not easy to behold. 
Ogun, let me not see the red of your eye. 

Ogun sacrifices an elephant to his head. 

Master of iron, head of warriors, 

Ogun, great chief of robbers. 

Ogun wears a bloody cap. 

Ogun has four hundred wives and one thousand four hundred children. 

Ogun, the fire that sweeps the forest. 

Ogun's laughter is no joke. 

Ogun eats two hundred earthworms and does not vomit. 

Ogun is a crazy orisha [deity] who still asks questions after 780 years. 

Whether I can reply, or whether I cannot reply, 

Ogun please don't ask me anything. 

The lion never allows anybody to play with his cub. 
Ogun will never allow his child to be punished. 


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114 Oral Literature in Africa 

Ogun do not reject me! 

Does the woman who spins ever reject a spindle? 

Does the woman who dyes ever reject a cloth? 

Does the eye that sees ever reject a sight? 

Ogun, do not reject me! [Ogun needs his worshippers]. 

(Gbadamosi and Beier 1959: 21-2) 

Despite these elaborate religious praises, however, the most frequent 
subjects for panegyric are humans, especially kings and chiefs. Sometimes 
these are self-praises, like the personal recitations of the Hima noble class 
of Ankole in which a man celebrates his military achievements, building 
his poem on a sequence of praise names: 

I Who Am Praised thus held out in battle among foreigners along with The 

I Who Ravish Spear In Each Hand stood resplendent in my cotton cloth; 
I Who Am Quick was drawn from afar by lust for the fight .... 

(Morris 1964: 42) 

Praises of kings are the most formal and public of all, ranging from the 
relatively simple Ganda praise of the powerful nineteenth-century king 
Mutesa cited by the Chadwicks: 

Thy feet are hammers, 

Son of the forest [a comparison with a lion] 

Great is the fear of thee; 

Great is thy wrath; 

Great is thy peace; 

Great is thy power (Chadwicks iii, 1940: 579) 

to the more allusive and figurative praise of another powerful ruler, a man 
who had seized power for himself in Zaria and was deposed by the British 
when they occupied Northern Nigeria: 

Mahama causer of happiness, Mahama yenagi yenaga [meaning uncertain], 
Mahama slab of salt who handles it tastes pleasure 

— though thou hatest a man thou givest him a thousand cowries 

— thou hatest a naked man's blood but if thou dost not get his garment thou 
slayest him 

— Mahama the rolling flight of the crow, O boy cease gazing and seeing first 
white then black . . . 3 

— the wall of silver that reaches the breast of the horseman 

— the tying up that is like releasing 4 

3 Reference to a crow with a white band which shows intermittently in flight— i.e. do not 
expect consistency from this powerful ruler. 

4 i.e. we ought to enjoy even ill treatment from such a great man. 


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5. Panegyric 115 

— son of Audu thy help (is) God 

— son of Audu, the support of God which is more than the man withthe 
quiver, yea more than his chief on his horse 

— hammer of Audu 

— salt of Kakanda that is both sweet and bitter 5 

— son of Audu, O sun thou dost not look askance and slightingly 6 

— storm on the land, medicine for the man with the mat-cover 

— elephant with the red loins, medicine for the standing grass, 7 with thy 
trunk thou spiest into every man's house 

— the beating of the rain does not stop the jingling of the bell 8 

— the swelling of the palm-stem that fills the embrace of the (climbing) boy 9 

— black dafara tree there is labour before thou breakest. 10 

The frank assessment of the emir's character which accompanies the 
lauding of his power and achievements is not unparalleled. 'Praise' poems 
of people frequently include derogatory remarks, veiled or otherwise, 
or give advice as well as praise. Thus the praises of two Hausa emirs of 
Zazzau run 

Look not with too friendly eyes upon the world, 
Pass your hand over your face in meditation, 
Not from the heat of the sun. 
The bull elephant is wise and lives long. 


Be patient, and listen not to idle tales 

Poisoned chaff attracts the silly sheep — and kills them (Heath 1962: 27, 32) 

Self-praises, created and performed by the subject him or herself, are not 
uncommon. Among the Sotho all individuals (or all men) are expected to 
have some skill in the composition and performance of self-praises, and 
the composition of formalized praise poetry among the Ankole is expected 
to be within the capacity of every nobleman: he must find inspiration in a 
particular episode, compose a personal and topical praise poem based on 
it, and add it to his repertoire (Morris 1964: 13). Again, among the Ibo the 
taking of a title is sometimes followed by a string of self-praises (Egudu 
1967: 9-10). As we saw in Chapter 4, a certain amount of private enterprise 

5 We must bear his will whatever it is. 

6 He is as overpowering as the sun dazzling in the sky. 

7 You trample it down as you trample your enemies. 

8 No efforts of ours will curb his will. 

9 As formidable to his foes as the swelling in the palm-tree to one trying to swarm up it. 
10 His power is compared to that of a tough climbing plant. Fletcher 1912: 38-9. On Hausa 

praise poetry see also Prietze 1918; Smith 1957. 


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116 Oral Literature in Africa 

praising of individuals is also widespread. In northern Sierra Leone 
and other parts of West Africa it is not uncommon for expert Mandingo 
singers, sometimes accompanied by drummers or xylophonists, to wander 
through the streets or attend festivals on their own initiative. They pick 
on some outstanding or reputedly wealthy individual for their praises; 
and even those who refer to them contemptuously as 'beggars' are in fact 
glad to reward them with gifts and thanks, and thus hope to send them 
on their way content, avoiding the possibility of public shaming for lack 
of generosity. Praises by women sometimes occur too. In the kingdom of 
Dahomey choruses of wives are expected to perform in praise of the king 
and chiefs (Herskovits 1938, ii: 322) and professional singers include a 
women's group among the Nupe (Bowers 1965: 54). 

The most formal state praises, however, are usually made by official male 
bards. Thus every Zulu king had one or more specialists who both recited 
the praises of previous rulers and composed new ones to commemorate 
the achievements and qualities of the present king. Similarly there were 
specialist praise poets, ranging from the Ashanti state drummers and 
singers to the Rwanda dynastic poets described in an earlier chapter. Where 
accompaniment is important whole teams may sometimes be responsible 
for official praises; among the Hausa a District Head's maroka (praise) team 
normally contained several drummers (to play the different types of drum), 
eulogists, two or more pipers, and sometimes a horn-blower (Smith 1957: 29). 
Lesser chiefs tended to have bards who were less skilled and less 
specialized, modelled on the king's but performing in a less complex and 
more limited way. 

The style of recitation varies between the unaccompanied forms 
characteristic of the Southern Bantu praises, those with fairly minimal 
accompaniment on some stringed instrument, 11 and that in which the 
accompaniment is stressed (usually percussion or wind). This last type 
is widespread in West African states and its precise form is sometimes 
a significant aspect of the attribution of status implied in the praise. 
Among the Hausa the amount or type of musical accompaniment is 
clearly laid down for the praises of each grade of ruler in the hierarchy; 
wooden gongs, for instance, may not be used to praise anyone below a 
certain level, and there are special instruments that can only be used for 

11 This is apparently typical of Eastern Bantu poetry (Chadwicks iii, 1940: 577) and of some 
peoples in West Africa such as the Bambara (Paques 1954: 108). 


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5. Panegyric 117 

praising kings and leading vassals (Smith 1957: 28). In West Africa the 
whole praise may take place on the drum or on horns, without the use of 
the human voice at all, a particularly common form in southern Ghana, 
Dahomey, and Nigeria but also recorded in some more northerly areas 
(for drum poetry see Ch. 17). 

Most praise poetry, above all the official type, seems to adopt a more or less 
obscure and allusive style. The language may be archaic and lofty, there are 
often references to historical events or people which may need interpretation 
even to local listeners, and figurative forms of expression are common. 
Especially frequent are comparisons of the person praised to an animal or 
series of animals. His strength may be conveyed by referring to him as a lion, 
a rhinoceros, or an elephant, and, particularly in Southern Bantu praise poetry, 
the actions and qualities of the hero may be almost completely conveyed in 
metaphorical terms, only the animals to which the hero is implicitly compared 
being depicted in action. Comparisons to natural phenomena are also fairly 
frequent— the hero is likened to a storm, a rock, a downpour of rain. Other 
figurative forms of expression occur, sometimes reaching a high degree of 
complexity. In one Rwanda poem the royal name, 'Ntare, suggests to the poet 
the term intare, lion; he does not make a direct substitution of one name for 
the other, but 'veils' the royal lion by talking about the qualities of the animal, 
and so refers to the king by such terms as 'Hunter of zebras', 'Clamour of 
the forests', 'Mane-carrier' (Kagame 1951fr: 17). Not all praise poetry takes 
allusion quite so far, but in general panegyric seems to exploit allusion and 
imagery to a higher degree than other forms of poetry in Africa. Praise of a 
person (or a thing) is not something to be expressed in bald or straightforward 

Much panegyric is formalized, thus less variable than many other types 
of oral literature. Unlike self-praises and the more informal and topical 
praise poems there seems to be a marked tendency for the state praises of 
present (and particularly past) rulers to be handed down in a more or less 
received version. Word and stanza order is, indeed, sometimes varied from 
recitation to recitation, or follows the particular version approved by an 
individual bard (as in the case, for instance, of Southern Bantu panegyric), 
but the changes seem to be minor; stress is laid on conformity to tradition. In 
Rwanda, with its powerful corporation of bards, the exactness of wording 
seems even more close. In one case there were only very slight variations in 
four versions by four different bards of a 365-line praise poem attributed to 
a poet of about 1820 (Ibid.: 24ff). 


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118 Oral Literature in Africa 

The occasions for the performance of praise poetry have already been 
touched on in the discussion of its authors and reciters. Praise names are 
used when formal address is required. Among the Southern Bantu the 
praise name of an individual's clan was used on formal occasions, while 
among the Yoruba praise names, sung or drummed, are to be heard widely 
on festive occasions when the drummers go about the streets formally 
addressing the passers-by and receiving a small reward in return. Among 
many West African peoples drummers at a king's gate play not only 
the king's praise names, but announce and honour important guests by 
drumming or piping their names as they enter the palace. A man's status 
is recognized and reaffirmed by the use of these formalized praise names, 
particularly when, as in the announcement of visitors, this is a matter of 
public performance. 

Among peoples to whom the concept of praise names or praise verses 
is common, there are many informal occasions when praises are used in 
the same way as speeches or commentaries in other contexts. Thus among 
the Kele of the Congo wrestling matches are often accompanied by a form 
of praise on the talking drum: the contestants are saluted as they enter 
the ring ('the hero, full of pride'), there is comment and encouragement 
from the drums as the match continues, and at the end praise for the victor 
(Carrington 1949a: 63-5). On festive occasions among many peoples— the 
Yoruba are one example — singers and drummers often welcome those 
who attend with songs or chants of praise, usually led by a soloist who 
improvises to suit the individual, accompanied by a chorus. The popularity 
of praises means that they can be used for profit, a possibility frequently 
exploited by the roving Hausa soloist described in the last chapter. But 
they can also stir people to genuine excitement: gifts are showered on the 
praise poets from enthusiasm as well as fear. Among the Soninke, writes 

leur maniement du langage, les chaleureuses louanges dont ils couvrent 
leurs auditeurs, la beaute de leur musique ou de leurs rythmes suscitent 
d'authentiques emotions, une sorte d'ivresse enthousiaste qui entraine a 
donner sans compter (1967: 14). 

Praise poetry often plays an essential part in rites of passage: when 
an individual (or group) moves from one status to another in society, 
the transition is celebrated by praises marking the new status or 
commemorating the old. The eulogies involved in funeral dirges are 
described elsewhere, but in a sense they also fall into this category. Again, 


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5. Panegyric 119 

self-praises by boys at initiation, as among the Sotho or the Galla, are an 
important aspect of their claim to adulthood, which is heard and accepted 
by their audience. Among many peoples, weddings are also an obligatory 
occasion for praises of bride and groom either by their friends and relations 
or by professional bards. Accession to office is another common context for 
praise poetry, usually in public and in the presence of those who take this 
opportunity to express their loyalty. Sometimes self-praising is used on 
such occasions; the Hima of Ankole recited praises when a man was given 
a chieftainship by the king or when he dedicated himself to the king for 
service in battle (Morris 1964: 12). 12 Even when a new status is not being 
formally marked, praise poetry is often relevant in the analogous situation 
of publicizing an individual's recent achievements, particularly those in 
battle or the hunt. 

Most spectacular and public are the frequent occasions on which 
rulers are praised. Sometimes this takes a very simple form — as on 
the bush paths in northern Liberia or Sierra Leone when a petty chief, 
carried in his hammock, is accompanied by praises as he enters villages 
and the local dwellers are thus instructed or reminded of his chiefly 
dignity. Or it may be a huge public occasion as in the Muslim chiefdoms 
in Nigeria— Hausa, Nupe, Yoruba — when at the 'Sallah' rituals (the 
Muslim festivals of Id-el-Fitr and Id-el-Kabir) the subordinate officials 
attend the king on horseback, accompanied by their praise-singers. 
Their allegiance is shown by a cavalry charge with drawn swords outside 
the palace; the official praise-singers take part in the gallop, piping and 
drumming the king's praises on horseback. Any sort of public event (the 
arrival of important visitors to the ruler, the installation ceremonies of a 
chief, a victory in battle) may be the occasion for praises by official bards 
or other experts; the ruler's position is commented on and recognized by 
the stress laid both on the dignity of the office and, more explicitly, on the 
achievements of its present incumbent. Periodic praises are often obligatory. 
Among some of the Yoruba the praises of the king, with the complete list of 
his predecessors and their praises, must be recited once a year in public. In 
many Muslim kingdoms the ruler is celebrated weekly by teams of praisers 
(reciters, drummers, pipers) who stand outside the palace to eulogize his 
office, ancestry, and power, sometimes including at his request those of his 

12 For similar self-praises among the Ibo on the occasion of taking an ozo title see the 
instance quoted in Ch. 16. 


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120 Oral Literature in Africa 

friends or patrons. In return the ruler acknowledges their praise by gifts or 
money which are often given publicly. 

The manifold social significance of praise poetry is clear. It can validate 
status by the content of the praise, by the number and quality of the 
performers, and by the public nature of the recitation. This validation 
is often acknowledged by gifts. Praise poetry stresses accepted values: 
the Hausa praise their rulers in terms of descent and birth, the Zulu 
emphasize military exploits, and the Nupe voice their admiration for 
modern achievement in their praises of the ruler's new car (Nadel 1942: 
140-1). This kind of poetry can also act as a medium of public opinion, for 
up to a point praisers can withhold praise or include implicit or explicit 
derogatory allusions as a kind of negative sanction on the ruler's acts. 
Further social functions are publicizing new status or achievements in a 
non-literate culture, flattering those in power or drawing attention to one's 
own achievements, preserving accepted versions of history (particularly 
the exploits of earlier rulers), serving as an encouragement to emulation 
or achievement, and, not least, providing an economically profitable 
activity for many of those who engage in it. But consideration of the 
obvious social functions of praise poetry must not obscure its very real 
literary qualities. It was also appreciated for its intellectual and aesthetic 
interest, and for the fact that on some occasions it was recited purely for 
enjoyment— in the evening recitations of the Hima, or in the salons of 
important Hausa prostitutes where there was nightly praise-singing and 
witty conversation. 

Many of these general points will emerge more clearly in a detailed 
discussion of the praise poetry of the Southern Bantu, the praise poetry 
which has been most fully documented and described. Obviously the 
details of occasion, tone, performance, and, most of all, style are peculiar 
to the societies which practise them. But the importance of praises in 
Bantu society has something in common with praises of other aristocratic 
or kingly societies in Africa, and a consideration of Southern Bantu praise 
poetry during the remainder of this chapter can throw further light on the 
general aspects that have been discussed so far. 13 

13 Besides references to panegyric cited elsewhere in this chapter, see also the collection of 
Kanuri praise poems in Patterson 1926. 


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5. Panegyric 121 


The praise poems of the Bantu peoples of South Africa are one of the most 
specialized and complex forms of poetry to be found in Africa. Many 
examples have been published in the original or in translation (though as 
yet these are probably only a fragment of what could be found), and there 
is a large literature about them by scholars in South Africa. Elsewhere, in 
general studies of African oral literature, they have tended to be ignored, 
or, in the most recent general account (Bascom 1965), mentioned only in 
passing under the heading of 'Briefer Forms', which is an odd way of 
classifying such elaborate and lengthy poems. 

These praise poems have been described as intermediary between epic and 
ode, a combination of exclamatory narration and laudatory apostrophizing 
(Lestrade 1937: 295). A certain amount of narrative is involved— the 
description of battles or hunts, and the exploits of the hero. But the general 
treatment is dramatic and panegyric, marked by a tone of high solemnity and 
a lofty adulatory style. The expression is typically obscure and intense, and 
the descriptions are presented in figurative terms, with allusions to people 
and places and the formalized and poetic praise names of heroes. 

This poetry occurs widely among the Southern Bantu cluster of peoples 
in South Africa where it is regarded by the people themselves as the highest 
of their many forms of poetic expression. It has been particularly well 
documented among the Nguni-speaking peoples (a group which includes 
Zulu, Xhosa, and Swazi as well as the offshoot Ngoni of Malawi) and the 
Sotho groups (including, among others, the Lovedu and Tswana); and it 
also occurs among such people as the Venda and the Tsonga-speaking 
groups. Although at different periods and among different peoples there 
are differences of tone and form which would have to be considered in 
a detailed account of this poetry, 14 in general they share the same form 
and here they will be treated together. Besides these famous Southern 
Bantu forms, similar poems occur elsewhere among the Bantu, notably 
among the cattle-owning aristocrats of East Central Africa. The poems of 
the Bahima in Ankole, described by Morris (1964) as 'heroic recitations', 

14 See in particular the detailed analysis of different periods of Zulu poetry in the unpublished 
thesis by Kunene (1962) summarized in Cope 1968: 50ff. Also detailed studies by Cope, 
Schapera, Mofokeng, and others. There is a brief description of some different styles which 
contrast with 'the main stream of Zulu praise-poetry' in Cope 1968: 61-3. 


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122 Oral Literature in Africa 

and the 'dynastic poetry' and 'historical poems' of Ruanda (Kagame \95\b; 
Coupez 1968) have something in common with Southern Bantu praise 
poetry and they could perhaps be classed together. 15 

Although normally addressed to distinguished human beings, praise 
poems can be concerned with almost anything— animals, divining bones, 
beer, birds, clans. Even a stick may be apostrophized in high-sounding 
terms, as in this Zulu poem: 

Guardsman of the river fords, 

Joy of adventurers reckless! (Dhlomo 1947: 6) 

Praises of animals are very common, usually of the male. Among the 
pastoral Zulu cattle are a particularly popular subject, but wild animals 
also appear. The lion is referred to as the 'stone-smasher', or 'awe-inspirer', 
or 'darkness', and the crocodile is the 

Cruel one, killer whilst laughing. 

The Crocodile is the laughing teeth that kill. (Lekgothoane 1938: 201) 

Some animal praises are more light-hearted and humorous than the solemn 
panegyrics of prominent people. Consider, for example, the following 
Southern Sotho praise poem with its vivid and concise description of a pig: 

Pig that runs about fussily, 

Above the narrow places, above the ground; 

Up above the sun shines, the pig grows fat, 

The animal which grows fat when it has dawned. 

Pig that runs about fussily, 

With little horns in its mouth. (Lestrade 1935: 9) 

But even praises of animals are often marked by solemnity and allusiveness. 
Indeed there is often an intentional ambiguity in the poems between animal 
and person, and some poems can be interpreted as sustained metaphors. 
The following Northern Sotho poem appears to be about a leopard; but the 
allusion is to the chiefs of the Tlokwa, whose symbol was a leopard: 

It is the yellow leopard with the spots 

The yellow leopard of the cliffs 

It is the leopard of the broad cheeks 

Yellow leopard of the broad face, I-do-not-fear 

The black and white one, I-get-into-a-small-tree 

15 Besides other references in this chapter see also Chiwale 1962; the brief description of 
Shona praise songs by Mandishona in Fortune 1964; also the Rozi praise poem quoted in 
Fortune 1956; Morris 1965; Gbadamosi 1961. 


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5. Panegyric 123 

I tear off the eyebrows 16 

Clawer am I, I dig in my claws 

My people (adversaries) I leave behind 

Saying: this was not one leopard, there were ten. 

Mr. Claws, scratch for yourself 

Even for a big man it's no disgrace to yell if scratched 

Leopards of the Tlokwa country 

Of Bolea, where the Tlokwa came from 

Wild cat with the broad face 

Both impala buck we eat and cattle 

You died in Botlokwa 

In the Tlokwa-land of Mmathsaka Maimane 

Tlokwa-land of the sons of Mokutupi of Thsaka 

Where do you go in Tlokwa-land (to seize cattle)? 

It is full of blood, it has got the liver 

Leopard of Bolea. 

Yellow leopard of the clan Maloba the great 

Yellow spotted one 

Poor nobody, active smart fellow that summons together a huge gathering 

My victim goes away with his scalp hanging down over his eyes 

Leopard of the many spots 

Leopard of the very dark spots 

Leopard grand old man (formidable one) 

Even when it can no longer bite, it still butts its adversaries out of the way 

with its forehead. (Lekgothoane 1938: 193-5) 

The most developed and famous forms, however, are those in which people 
are directly praised and described. In some areas these include self-praises, 
such as those composed by boys on their emergence from traditional 
initiation schools or by warriors on their return from battle. Others occur in 
the relatively informal context of a wedding when a woman may be praised 
(which is otherwise unusual). Most ambitious and elaborate of all are the 
praises composed and recited by the professional bards surrounding a king 
or chief. The following extract from one of the many praises of the famous 
Zulu king, Shaka, illustrates the use of allusion, metaphor, and praise 
name which are combined with some narrative to convey the bravery and 
fearsomeness of the king as he defeated his enemy Zwide: 

His spear is terrible. 

The Ever-ready- to-meet-any-challenge! 

The first-born sons of their mothers who were called for many years! 17 

16 The leopard sits in a tree over the path and claws at the head of a passer-by. 

17 i.e. Shaka's courage is contrasted with the cowardice of those who did not answer the call. 


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124: Oral Literature in Africa 

He is like the cluster of stones of Nkandhla, 

Which sheltered the elephants when it had rained. 18 

The hawk which I saw sweeping down from Mangcengeza; 

When he came to Pungashe he disappeared. 

He invades, the forests echo, saying, in echoing, 

He paid a fine of the duiker and the doe. 

He is seen by the hunters who trap the flying ants; 

He was hindered by a cock in front, 

By the people of Ntombazi and Langa [mother and father of Zwide] 

He devoured Nomahlanjana son of Zwide; 

He devoured Mdandalazi son of Gaqa of the amaPela; 

He was lop-eared. 

He devoured Mdandalazi son of Gaqa of the amaPela; 

He was lop-eared. 

The Driver-away of the old man born of Langa's daughter! 

The Ever-ready- to-meet-any-challenge! 


The first-born sons of their mothers who were called for many years! 

He is like the cluster of stones of Nkandhla, 

Which sheltered elephants when it had rained . . . 

The Eagle-which-beats-its-wings-where-herds-graze! 

He drove away Zwide son of Langa, 

Until he caused him to disappear in the Ubani; 

Until he crossed above Johannesburg and disappeared; 

He crossed the Limpopo where it was rocky; 

Even though he left Pretoria with tears. 

He killed the snake, he did not kill it in summer, 

He killed it when the winter had come. (Grant 1927: 211-3) 

In more purely panegyric vein is the briefer praise poem to Moshesh, the 
famous Southern Sotho chief: 

Nketu (frog) of the regiment, companion of Shakhane and Ramakh-wane, 

Stirrer-up of dust, you came from the centre of the plateau of Rathsowanyane, 

The child of the chief of Qhwai saw you, 

You were seen by Ratjotjose of Mokhethi; 

Cloud, gleaner of shields, 

When Nketu is not there among the people, 

The leaders of the regiment cry aloud and say, Nketu and Ramakhwane, 

where are you? (Lestrade 1935: 10) 

18 A reference to a famous battle between Shaka and Zwide which took place in the broken 
country near Nkandhla. 


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5. Panegyric 125 

The main topic tends to be the chief's military exploits. However, other 
subjects are also introduced. Among the Swazi a leader's praise poems are 
always known by all his followers, and include references not only to his 
actions in war but also to acts of generosity and to his skill and achievement 
in hunting. Comments on personality 19 and criticism which can provide 
a kind of social pressure on an unpopular chief, are not uncommon, and 
sometimes sarcastic or even insulting remarks are included which, among 
the Ngoni at least, are said to represent a high kind of praise — such 
comments are so ludicrous that they could not possibly be true (Read 
1937: 22). Praises composed more recently may include references to, for 
instance, winning a case in the High Court (Morris 1964: 84ff.), travelling 
abroad to work in European areas, or dealing with tax collectors (Schapera 
1965: 4, 229). But it remains true that the most outstanding and beautiful of 
the traditional praises are those to do with war (and often more peaceful 
exploits are expressed in military terms). 

Various stock topics about the hero's military actions are described in, 
for example, most Sotho praise poems. 20 These include the leader's temper 
before the battle, his journey to the field, his fighting, his victims, the booty, 
and finally his return home, all portrayed in emotional and high-flown terms. 
The basis of the events mentioned is authentic, but the emphasis is on those 
incidents in which the hero excelled. Thus even if reverses are mentioned, 
they are expressed euphemistically. Even if a war was lost, the hero won one 
of the battles. Or a rout may be admitted to throw into greater contrast the 
hero's second and more vigorous offensive. The opponents are frequently 
referred to in contemptuous terms, compared, for instance, to a small and 
despicable ox, or to a bull without horns fighting against a conquering and 
triumphant bull. In these praises it is usually the chief himself who is the 
centre of attention, but his companions and relatives may also be mentioned 
and their support is seen to add to the hero's prestige and success. 

The wars in which these heroes are depicted as fighting are varied. 
Many of them are against neighbouring peoples in South Africa and 
involve not only pitched battles but more mobile cattle raiding. Others are 
between rival contenders for power in one area, such as Shaka's hostilities 
with some of his rivals. Wars against European invaders are also frequent 
occasions for praise poems — and, as Norton puts it, one may wonder 
whether the exploits of the conquerors were celebrated in as poetic and 
elevated a manner as some of those of the conquered (Norton 1950: 23). 

19 See the examples of this in the Zulu panegyric in Cope 1968: 34. 

20 The following account is mainly based on Mofokeng, 1945 part iii, Ch. 1. 


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126 Oral Literature in Africa 

Here, for example, is a poem praising the bravery of a Swazi king, Mavuso, 
who was involved in fighting with the Afrikaaners: 

Mavuso of Ngwane, 

Dangazela [i.e. Mavuso] of Ngwane of Sobhusa. 

News of war eats the child still in the womb. 

If a person can walk he would have run away. 

Flee ye by all the paths, 

Go and tell the news to Mpande of the Zulu: 

Say one elephant ate another, 

And covered it with dress material and quantities of beads. 

Those who ran away swore by Lurwarwa, 

Saying, 'Mswazi [early king and prototype] will not return, he is killing' 

He fights in the darkness, when will the dawn come? 

O chief that fights with the light of burning grass until the dawn comes. 

They were saying that Mswazi was a boy herding calves; 

We shall never be ruled by the hoe stood in the door of Majosi-kazi. 

He will rule Mkuku and Msukusuku. 

O one who comes in and goes out of sandy places, 

O bird of Mabizwa-sabele 

You are called by Shila of Mlambo, 

For him you asked cattle from Mhlangala, 

You are asked by Mawewe to ask cattle from Mzila of Soshan-gane. ^P 

Dutchmen of Piet Retief, we do not approve of you, 

We blame you 

By stabbing the chief who was helping you. 

You cry at the grave of Piet Retief, 

You cry at the grave of John. 

one alone without an advocate 
Although Ntungwa had one: 
Our chief who can stab, 

1 never saw a man who could stab like him. 
He stabs with an assegai until he tires. 
Mngqimila who bears a headdress of feathers, 
Mababala who arms on a bad day, 

Lomashakizela [one-who-goes-quickly], Lomashiya impi 

Bayete, Bayete. (Cook 1931: 193) 


The Southern Bantu praise poems are largely built up of a series of praise 
names and praise verses. These praise names can be either category 
terms— a cock is 'the aggressive one', the class of cattle 'the horned one' or 
'God of the wet nose' (Sotho) — or individual terms, as when a particular 


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5. Panegyric 127 

bull is 'biggest in the herd'. Clan praise names are used in formal address 
to clan members; a Tswana clan, for instance, has the praise name Mokzvena 
(from kwena, a crocodile, the symbol of the clan), so an individual of the 
clan may be called by the general praise name of Mokzvena. In addition 
many individuals have their own laudatory epithets which refer to their 
character or their deeds; these epithets are usually bestowed on kings, 
leaders, and outstanding warriors. Thus we meet the Zulu 'Sun-is-shining', 
'Fame-spread-abroad', or the Venda 'Devouring Beast', 'Lord of the Lands', 
or 'Huge Head of Cattle'. Sometimes the praise name is expanded so that 
it takes up a whole line (as in the Zulu 'Herd-of-Mtsholoza-he-escaped- 
and-was-killed'), and certain prominent people are praised with a whole 
string of names: Shaka, for instance, is said to have had several dozen. 21 
Sometimes the hero is also referred to by the name of his clan's symbol or 
other animal— as, for instance, a crocodile, lion, rhinoceros, or elephant— and 
much of the poem is thus built up oh a sustained metaphor, almost allegory, 
about the animal which represents the hero. Some poems seem to make 
special use of these praise names, but in all of them the inclusion of these 
colourful epithets adds both grandeur and imagery to the verse. 

Besides individual praise names (often just one word in the original) 
there are praise verses or praise lines in which one laudatory phrase 
takes up at least a whole line in the poem. One of the Sotho praise verses 
about the class of cattle runs: 'The beast lows at the chief's great place; if 
it lows in a little village— belonging to a commoner — it is wrong', while 
Dingane's silent and cunning character is referred to by 'The deep and 
silent pool is calm and inviting, yet dangerous', a Venda chief is 'Light 
of God upon earth', and Shaka is described as 'The play of the women at 

A praise poem is in general built up of these smaller units which are 
often loosely linked together into stanzas. 22 These stanzas follow in varying 
orders in different versions. The order is variable because the different 
stanzas are often linked not by specific meaning but by their general 
application to the hero of the poem; it is often as important to convey a 
general picture of his actions and character as to present his exploits in 
a narrative within a chronological framework. The whole composition is 
extremely fluid, with given stanzas sometimes appearing, sometimes not, 
or some versions combining into one poem what others give as two or even 

21 Several occur in the poem about Shaka quoted earlier. 

22 There may be some exceptions to this. The pre-Shakan Zulu praise poem is said to be 
short and simple and not always made up of stanzas (Cope 1968: 52-3). 


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128 Oral Literature in Africa 

three distinct praises. 23 Thus each type (praise name, verse, stanza, and 
poem) is an extension of the previous kind, and the literary significance 
which is attached to each finds its fullest expression in the complex and 
extensive poem. 

Any discussion of the formal structure of praise poems must include 
some reference to prosody (see especially Lestrade 1935, 1937; Grant 1927: 
202; Mofokeng 1945: 136ff.). This is a difficult topic, but it seems that there 
is some kind of dynamic stress which, in addition to other stylistic features 
mentioned below, is one of the main characteristics which distinguish 
this art form as 'poetry'. The division into lines is in most cases indicated 
fairly clearly by the reciter's delivery, so that certain groups of words are 
pronounced together in the same breath, followed by a pause, and fall 
together in terms of sense, sometimes consisting of a formalized 'praise 
verse' of the kind already described. Within each of these lines there are 
normally three or four groups of syllables (or 'nodes', as Lestrade terms 
them), each group marked by one main stress but containing any number 
of other syllables. This 'node' sometimes consists of just one word (or is 
dynamically treated as one word). The main stress is sometimes on the 
penultimate syllable of the 'node', followed by a brief break; the stress 
on the last 'node' of the line is usually the strongest, and is followed by 
a more pronounced break. A stanza— and, ultimately, a whole poem — is 
thus made up of a succession of these lines, each consisting of three or 
four 'nodes' following each other indiscriminately. There seems to be 
no attempt at regular quantitative metre, for the stanzas are made up of 
irregular numbers of lines each with varying numbers of syllables, but 
the variety in syllable numbers (by some considered a mark of richness 
in itself) is bound together not only by the over-all pattern of this strong 
stress rhythm, but by repetition, parallelism, and other devices to be 
discussed below. 

The overall pattern is also brought out by certain melodic features in the 
actual recitation. This has been studied in some detail in the case of Southern 
Sotho and especially in Zulu praise poetry (Mofokeng 1945: 136ff.; Rycroft 
1960, 1962). In the delivery there is some musical use of pitch, even though 
the actual tones are too close to the tones of normal speech for the poems 
actually to count as 'songs'. The melodic aspect centres round a limited 
series of notes, enough to provide a contrast with the less formalized speech 

23 See the detailed examples in Schapera 1965: llff . 


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5. Panegyric 129 

of ordinary prose. The ends of stanzas in particular are brought out by the 
lengthening and special pitch (often a glide) of the penultimate syllable. 
This amounts to a kind of concluding formula, melodically marked, for 
each stanza (a detailed description is given in Rycroft 1960). 

The example quoted by Lestrade may serve to bring out more clearly the 
effect of the penultimate stress (marked by an acute accent) in the 'nodes' 
and at the end of each stanza. This is a praise poem of Moshesh: 

Child of Mmamokhathsane, 
Thesele (praise-name), 

Thesele, deep chasm, 

Cattle enter into it on their way, 

Also people enter into it on 
their way. 

You who give the BaKwena 
cattle to kill, 

Please give your aunt cattle to 

Please give Mmasetenane cattle 
to kill, that she may carry the 
meat away, 

That she may say, These are the 
fat stomachs of cattle and of 

(Lestrade 1935: 4-5) 

The poetic style of these poems emerges more fully when one considers 
the language and form of expression in some detail. 24 The language differs 
from that of ordinary prose (and to a large extent from that of other poetic 
genres among the Southern Bantu) in its archaic quality as well as the 
introduction of foreign words which add colour to the poem. Alliteration 
and assonance are both appreciated and exploited by the poet. 25 As well 
there are many syntactic constructions peculiar to the poems: the use of 
special idioms and of elaborate adjectives and adjectival phrases means 
that there is a special style which has to be mastered by a composer of 


Thesele/pharu/e telele/telele, 
kene/ka yona,/di sa ile, 

Le batho/ba kene/ka yona/ba 

sa lie. 

Hlabfsi/ya BaKwena, 


ak'a rwale. 

A re/ke mehlehlo/ya dikxomo/ 
le ya batho. 

24 On style and language see especially Lestrade 1935, Grant 1927: 203, Schapera 1965: 
15 and Cope 1968: 38; the following account is based particularly on Mofokeng's 
unpublished thesis (especially part iii, Chs. 1 and 3) on Southern Sotho praise poems. 

25 See the instances of this in Zulu praise poems in Cope 1968: 45-6. 

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130 Oral Literature in Africa 

praise poetry. Long compounds abound, many of them in the form of 
the praise names mentioned already and built up in various ways: from 
a predicate and object ('Saviour-of-the-people'), predicate and adverb 
('The-one-who-sleeps-in-water'), noun and adjective ('The-black-beast'), 
noun and copulative ('The-cliff-white-with-thick-milk'), and several others. 
In Southern Sotho praises, prefixes and concord also appear in characteristic 
ways, with certain rare omissions of prefixes, and with contractions. There 
are special prefixes suitable for praising, for example se-, which indicates 
the habitual doing of something and is common in praises to suggest the 
hero's habit or character, and ma-, which appears in names with the idea of 
doing something extensively or repeatedly. 

Parallelism and repetition are marked features in praise poetry. These 
take various forms, and can be illustrated from the praise of Moshesh just 
quoted. In the third and fourth lines of the first stanza there is parallelism 
of meaning as well as, in part, of the words, with the second half of the line 
repeated identically the second time and in the first half a repetition of the 
same verb but with a different noun. Parallelism by which the same person 
is referred to by different names can be illustrated in the second and third 
lines in the second stanza, where the proper name Mmasete-nane refers to 
the same person mentioned earlier, with, again, identical repetition of other 
parts of the line. Both these forms of parallelism are common elsewhere in 
praise poetry. There are also many other forms: sometimes the repetition is 
not exact but the repeated phrase has something added to it, thus leading 
to progress in the action: 

He has taken out Ntsane of Basieeng 

He has taken out Ntsane from the cleft in the rock. (Mofokeng 1945: 132) 

A motif which is frequently used in describing someone's exploits; when 
placed like this side by side it adds to the impression of achievement. Or 
the thought may be repeated in following lines even when the wording is 

Watchman of derelict homes, 

Caretaker of people's ruins, 

Guardian of his mother's deserted house. (Schapera 1965: 17) 

The many other forms that occur include chiasmus (cross parallelism), 
deliberate change of word order in the second of three parallel lines, and 
the practice of linking, by which a phrase at the end of a line is taken up 
and repeated in the first half of the next. 


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5. Panegyric 131 

The use of ideophones and interjections in praise poetry is another 
way in which its poetic quality can be enhanced. In Southern Sotho, for 
instance, the interjections hele (expressing surprise), he (of a wish), or pe 
(a recognition of something overlooked) are frequently used to convey 
emotion. Ideophones too can add to the descriptive quality with vivid 
conciseness: qephe, for instance, conveys a sound picture of the last drop 
of milk during milking, occurring in such a line as 'There is not even the 
sound of the last drop, there is no milk'. 

The characteristically obscure nature of the language in praises is partly 
due to its figurative quality, as we shall see. But it also arises from the great 
emphasis on allusion in this form of poetry, to historical events, places, and 
peoples. As will be obvious from some of the examples quoted, the use of 
proper names is often extensive and at times stanzas consist mainly of a 
catalogue of names and places. 

The imagery in this form of poetry provides a striking contrast to the 
more straightforward expression in prose. By far the most common form 
is that of metaphor. The hero is associated with an animal, often the animal 
symbolic of his particular clan: a chief belonging to the clan associated 
with the crocodile may appear as 'The crocodile of crocodiles' or, as in the 
Southern Sotho praises of Lerotholi, the hero's nature may be indicated in 
terms of the animal: 

The crocodile looked in the deep pool, 

It looked with blood-red eyes. (Mofokeng 1945: 128) 

Where the comparison is to domestic animals, it is often with the suggestion 
that they are too wild for their enemies to manage— cattle may refuse their 
milk, kick mud into the milk, tear their milker's blanket, and in the case of 
a bull (a common image) his sharp horns are dangerous to those around 
him. Most frequent of all are comparisons to wild animals, to their bravery, 
wildness, and fearsome appearance. Thus a hero may appear as a lion, a 
spotted hyena, a big vulture, or a buffalo. In some praises the hero speaks 
in his own voice and himself draws the parallel with an animal or a series of 

I am the young lion! 

The wild animal with pad-feet and black back! 

Whose father has given up hope from the beginning and whose mother has 

wept for a long time. 

I am the fine elephant of the Mathubapula, the finest elephant in the 

Matsaakgang. (Ellenberger 1937: 19) 


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132 Oral Literature in Africa 

Though animal metaphors are the most common, heroes are also compared 
to natural phenomena like lightning, wind, or storm, or to other objects like 
a shield, a rock, flames of fire: 

The whirlwind [i.e. the hero] caused people to stumble 

The people were swept by the downpour of spears 

The heavy rain of summer, a storm, 

The hailstorm with very hard drops (Mofokeng 1945: 129) 

Sometimes there is a whole series of metaphors by which the hero is 
compared, or compares himself, to various different objects: 

The rumbling which is like the roll of thunder, 

Ox belonging to the younger brother of the chief . . . 

I am the wind that raises the yellow dust, 

I am the rhinoceros from the Badimo cattle-post, 

Son of Mma-Maleka and nephew of Lesele (Mofokeng 1945: 129) 

Similarly in the Transvaal Ndebele lines: 

The hail that came down in the middle of winter, 

And came down at emaKhoiphana. 

The elephant that took fire in a pot-sherd, 

And went and set the kraals of men alight, 

And burned down those of all the tribe (Ellenberger 1937: 6) 

Special grammatical forms are also used to introduce a metaphorical 
impression. In Southern Sotho, for instance, there is sometimes a change 
in the course of a poem from class 1 concords (the personal class) to others, 
a device which both conveys a metaphor and leads to variety, a change 
from the monotony of class 1 throughout; (Mofokeng 1945: 129) and 
'wrong' concords in Zulu similarly suggest a metaphorical idea (Vilakazi 
1938: 117). 

Similes are much rarer than metaphors, but a few occur in descriptions. 
Someone may be said to be 

Like a stone hammer 

Like a round boulder, the hero (Mofokeng 1945: 129) 

or the chief may be 'as shapely as the full moon' or 'as straight as a 
sandalwood tree' (Schapera 1965: 21). 

Hyperbole appears in emotional description, adding to the vividness of 
the picture. The confusion and fierceness of the battle may be indicated by 

A cow should run carrying her calf 
A man should run carrying his child 


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5. Panegyric 133 


The small herbs were frost-bitten in the middle of summer . . . 
The trees lost their leaves, 

The sparrows, the birds that lay eggs in the trees, forsook their nests 
(Mofokeng 1945: 130, 124) 

while a man's feelings may be conveyed by 

He left grieved in his heart 

He left with the heart fighting with the lungs, 

Heaven quarrelling with the earth (Mofokeng 1945: 131) 

It is largely through this figurative and allusive form of description that actions 
and qualities of people are conveyed in the praise poems. There is little stress on 
personal emotions, lyrical descriptions of nature, or straightforward narration. 
Rather a series of pictures is conveyed to the listeners through a number of 
laconic and often rather staccato sentences, a grouping of ideas which may 
on different occasions come in a different order. In this way impressions are 
communicated with economy and vividness. Vilakazi comments, for example, 
on the 'emotional shorthand' of such a passage as this Zulu poem: 

The thunder that bursts on the open 
Where mimosa trees are none. 

The giant camouflaged with leaves 

In the track of Nxaba's cattle 

He refuses tasks imposed by other people (Vilakazi 1945: 45) 

Here the figurative language conveys the action. First the hero's temper 
is described as like a sudden thunderstorm, then his force is indicated 
by comparing it to a giant elephant hidden by the leaves of the trees. His 
strength is then brought out further by the way he is able to win back the 
cattle taken away by one of the headmen (Nxaba) who fled north in Shaka's 
reign; finally the fact that not even Shaka can impose his commands on him 
proves his hardihood and strength of mind. 

This loose ordering of stanzas by which a series of pictures of a man's 
qualities and deeds is conveyed to the listener is typical. Nevertheless there 
are also vivid descriptions of the action itself in a way which fits the partly 
narrative aspect of praise poetry. Thus there are many examples of battle 
scenes in Southern Sotho praise poems. Here the sounds of the words, as 
well as the meaning, sometimes serve to heighten the effect: 

Cannons came roaring, the veld resounding 
Sword came tinkling from all sides 


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134 Oral Literature in Africa 

(Kanono tsa tla li kutuma thota e luma. 

Lisabole tsa tla li kelema kahohle) (Mofokeng 1945: 120) 

The hero's attack and the fate of his victims are favourite topics: 

Maame, the whirlwind of Senate, 
Snatched a man off his horse 
The European's horse took fright at the corpse 
It took fright at the corpse without a soul 


The lion roared when it saw them near. 

It jumped suddenly, wanting to devour them 

They ran in all directions the people of Masopha, They ran in all directions 

and filled the village, 

They scattered like finches. (Mofokeng 1945: 123, 124) 

When the victim falls on the ground, dead, and lies motionless this is 
described in one poem as 

He lay down, the grass became taller than him 
While it was finally dead quiet on the ground 

while the effect of battle, its many deaths, can also be shown indirectly in a 
description of the general scene: 

A foul smell came from the ridge, 

They no longer drink water the people of Rampai 

They are already drinking clods of human blood (Mofokeng 1945: 123, 120) 

It has frequently been remarked that the stress in praise poetry is on action 
and on the building up of a series of pictures about the deeds and qualities 
of the hero, rather than on lyric descriptions of nature; and in a general 
way this is certainly true. A few passages can be singled out as Dhlomo and 
Vilakazi have done, to represent a more lyrical approach to the beauty of 
nature. In a Zulu praise poem we have 

The greenness which kisses that of a gall bladder! 

Butterfly of Phunga, tinted with circling spots, 

As if made by the twilight from the shadow of mountains, 

In the dusk of the evening, when the wizards are abroad. (Dhlomo 1947: 6) 

Another picture which seems to be expressed for its own beauty is the brief 
praise of the blue-throated lizard in the Northern Sotho: 

Blue-throated lizard of the Lizards 

A blue chest (or throat) I have put on 

Brown I also have put on 

I, father-of-clinging of the hillside (Lekgothoane 1938: 213) 


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5. Panegyric 135 

But while such instances can fairly easily be found, in general the stress is 
far more on the hero and his character, so that what pictures are given of 
the scene and surroundings are subordinate to the insight they give into 
the hero's activity. The weather, for example, may be described not for its 
own sake but as a kind of formalized indication that some important event 
is about to be depicted or to show the determination and perseverance of 
the hero whatever the conditions. This comes out in the following Southern 
Sotho passage: 

When he is going to act the mist thickens; 

The mist was covering the snow-clad mountains, 

Mountains from which the wind blows. 

There was a wind, there was snow, Likila, 

There was a wind, there was snow on the mountains, 

Some were attracted by pillows and remained (Mofokeng 1945: 121). 

Here, as in all these praise poems, the first interest seems to be the laudatory 
description of the hero rather than descriptions of natural phenomena or 
the straightforward narration of events. It is to this panegyricizing end that 
both the general form and the detailed style of these poems all tend. 


As these poems are very much oral compositions, intended to be heard 
rather than read, they demand also some consideration of the way in which 
they are delivered and composed and the kinds of occasions on which they 
tend to be heard. 

Although again the details vary, there seems to be general agreement that 
praise poems are delivered much faster, and in a higher tone, than ordinary 
prose utterances. The reciter pours forth the praises with few pauses for breath 
and at the top of his voice. Often there is growing excitement and dramatic 
gestures are made as the poem proceeds. Grant describes a well-known Zulu 
praiser whom he heard in the 1920s. As the poet recited, he worked himself up 
to a high pitch of fervour, his face was uplifted, and his voice became loud and 
strong. The shield and stick that he carried were, from time to time, suddenly 
raised and shaken, and his gestures became more frequent and dramatic, so 
that he would suddenly leap in the air or crouch with glaring eyes while 
praises poured from his lips— until at last he stopped exhausted (1927: 202). 
The audience too play their part and often shout out encouragingly in support 
of what the praiser is saying or to cheer him on, adding to the emotional, even 
ecstatic mood that is induced by the delivery of these poems. 


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136 Oral Literature in Africa 

Something has already been said about the metrical and quasi-musical 
form of the delivery. Even in the mood of excitement described by Grant 
there is a clear emphasis on the penultimate syllable of certain words, and, 
in a more marked way still, on the word just preceding a pause at a line- or 
stanza-end. Praise poems have no musical accompaniment, nor, apparently, 
are they actually sung. Rather, they are semi-chanted, in the sense that a 
special stylized intonation is expected during the recitation. In Zulu the 
tonal and melodic movement is not a separate musical creation, but arises 
directly out of the words of a given line; and at the ends of lines and stanzas 
there are certain formalized cadences and glides, used as concluding 
formulas (Rycroft 1960). 

The power of a praise poem seems to depend partly on the delivery and 
the personality of the reciter. It is said, for instance, that when the great general 
Ndlela kaSompisi recited the whole audience became awestruck (Bang 1951), 
and Lekgothoane expresses the same view in an extreme form when he writes 
that 'a man whilst praising or being praised can walk over thorns, which 
cannot pierce his flesh which has become impenetrable' (1938: 191). However, 
with this complex and sophisticated form of poetry, unlike the simpler prose 
tales, the literary effect does not seem to have been dependent primarily on the 
skill of the reciter, but rather on the art of the poet as composer— in his use of 
the traditional forms described above, such as figurative expression, allusion, 
and the various stylistic devices which, quite apart from his delivery, served to 
heighten the effectiveness and power of the verse. 

The composition of praise poetry was traditionally both a specialist and 
a universal activity. All men seem to have been expected to have a certain 
skill. Commoners composed their own praises or those of their families 
and their cattle while those of high birth or outstanding prowess had their 
praises composed by others, the chiefs by specialist bards. The poems 
about earlier chiefs were handed down and probably known by the chief's 
followers as well as by the specialist reciters; but it was the particular 
responsibility of the official bards to recite them on appropriate occasions. 
Though the older poems were preserved in this way, this is not to say that 
each recitation of a single poem was verbally identical. Indeed several 
versions of the 'same' poem have sometimes been recorded, differing in, for 
instance, the order of the stanzas, their length, or the detailed wording or 
order of lines. The form of praise poetry makes it easy for poems to become 
telescoped without radically altering the sense; this is what seems to have 
happened with many of the earliest poems which tend to be considerably 
shorter than those about more recent chiefs. The recitation itself can also 


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5. Panegyric 137 

lead to additions by the performer, in the sense that a stanza or line may 
be introduced in that particular performance from his knowledge of the 
stock language and imagery. In these ways each separate performance of 
the traditional poem may involve a certain amount of 'composition' in the 
sense of introducing variant forms into a poem which has a clear outline 
but is not fixed into an exact verbal identity. Composition also of course 
takes place in the more familiar way with original creation by a single 
poet, notably by the professional bards of the chief. Using the conventional 
forms the poet produces a new poem, perhaps designed to commemorate 
a particular occasion like the coming of distinguished visitors, perhaps 
in general praise of the chief's deeds and character. The poem may then 
become famous and be added to the repertoire of praise poems of that 
particular chief, to be handed down to the court poets even after the chief's 
death. Among some peoples at least these original praise poems are the 
property of the composer in the sense that until his death no one may recite 
them in public (Schapera 1965: 6, on Tswana), and the names of the original 
poets may be remembered for some time. 

During the nineteenth and earlier part of the twentieth centuries, one 
of the main occasions for the composition of praise poems, among the 
Sotho-speaking peoples at least, was at the initiation ceremonies of boys 
(Laydevant 1930: 524; Mofokeng 1945: 136; Schapera 1965: 2-4). During their 
period of seclusion at the age of fifteen or sixteen the boys were required to 
compose and recite poems in praise of themselves, of their chief, and of their 
parents, and they had to recite these praises publicly on their emergence from 
seclusion. In this way the art of composition was insisted on as a necessary 
accomplishment for every man, involving some acquaintance at least with the 
various stylized forms of expression and historical allusions mentioned earlier. 

Self-praising also takes place on many other occasions. The most 
famous situation is after a battle when a warrior composes his own praises 
to celebrate his exploits or, if he is outstanding in bravery or birth, may 
have them composed for him by others. In this way every soldier had his 
own praises (in addition, that is, to the praise names possessed in virtue 
of his membership of a particular clan) which he either recited himself 
or, among the Zulu at least, had shouted out to him by his companions 
while he danced or prepared for war (Tracey, 1948b: vii; Ngubane 1951). 
War was the main occasion for such praises, but many other events may 
inspire them — exploits in hunting particularly, and the experience of going 
to work in European areas which, as Schapera notes, forms a new type of 
adventure to be celebrated among the Tswana (Schapera 1965: 4). 


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138 Oral Literature in Africa 

Whatever the initial occasions and subjects of their composition, the 
situations when recitations are made are basically the same — some public 
gathering, whether a festival, a wedding, a beer drink, or the performance of 
some public work. The chanting of praise poetry takes its place among the 
singing of other songs, and it is frequent for someone to walk about reciting 
praises of himself or his leader, while those present become silent and 
attentive. Among the Sotho peoples, the situation of divining also provides 
a formalized occasion for praises of both the bones used in divination 
and the various 'falls' which the diviner follows in his pronouncements. 
Weddings too are very widely regarded as another stock situation in which 
praises are not only possible but required, for the bride or bridegroom is 
lauded in praises which include references to the fame of their family and 
its ancestors (Schapera 1965: 4-5; Vilakazi 1945: 58). 

However, the prototypical situation for reciting praise poetry arises 
when a chief and his ancestors are praised by the specialist bards who 
form part of the chief's official entourage. These praise poets (Zulu imbongi, 
Tswana mmoki) were much respected members of the chief's official 
retinue and had the function of recording the praise names, victories, 
characteristics, and exploits (or expected exploits) of the chief to whom 
they were attached. The office was still recognized in the 1920s (Grant 1927: 
202), although it seems that later on these functions were performed by 
poets without official positions. One of the traditional occasions for the 
recitation of praises of the chiefs was in the early morning when the praiser 
shouted them out. Formal praises were delivered on ceremonial and public 
occasions when the bard recited a whole series of eulogies, starting with the 
famous praises of the king's or chief's ancestors — praises handed down to 
him by word of mouth — and finally reaching the praises, often composed 
by himself, of the present chief (Nyembezi 1948: 111). Such praises were 
also declaimed on special occasions such as after a victory by the chief, on 
the advent of distinguished visitors, at the installation of a new chief, or at 
the distribution of royal bounty. 


The social significance of these praise poems is bound up with the 
aristocratic nature of the Southern Bantu societies, traditionally based 
on a hierarchy of rank dependent on birth, and linked by an emphasis 
on the institutions of kingship and chiefship. The pastoral emphasis was 
also important, for even in those groups for whom agriculture formed the 


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5. Panegyric 139 

basis of the economy, cattle-holding was particularly esteemed as a mark of 
status and pride, an attitude which the many praise poems to cattle express 
clearly. The marked military tradition of all these societies, in particular the 
Zulu, is also relevant, together with the emphasis on competition, whether 
in military exploits, in hunting, in vying with other members of the same 
age-set, or for the favour and notice of the chief or king. This desire for 
fame and praise was something considered relevant not only in life but also 
after death: a man's memory was kept alive in his praises. 

Figure 11. Songs for Acholi long-horned cattle, Uganda. Cattle are often 

the subject of individual praises and praise names, sung by their herdsman 

(photo David Murray). 

In societies where status and birth were so important, the praise poems 
served to consolidate these values. As so often with panegyric, the 
recitation of the praises of the chief and his ancestors served to point out 
to the listeners the chief's right to the position he held both through his 
descent from those predecessors whose great deeds were commemorated 
and through his own qualities so glowingly and solemnly depicted in the 
poetry. As elsewhere, however, praises could contain criticism as well as 
eulogy, a pressure to conform to expectations as well as praise for actual 
behaviour. In this way, praise poetry could also have the implicit result 


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140 Oral Literature in Africa 

of exerting control on a ruler as well as the obvious one of upholding his 

These praise poems were, furthermore, not only a result of but in some 
cases a means towards acquiring position and power. The effective earning 
of praises was one way in which a man could recommend himself to his 
chief for honour and advancement. Praises meant support from others and, 
in Zulu society at least, a man's influence was closely correlated with his 
praises; the more a man achieved in battle and in council, the more and 
better his praises. Further, in a culture in which dancing was so important, 
a man could only dance publicly according to the number and quality of 
his praise poems (Dhlomo 1947; Cope 1968: 21). The poems also acted as 
an inducement to action and ambition. A young man's promise and his 
future heroic deeds were described in the praises he and his fellows made 
up, particularly on the occasion of his initiation when the ideals implied 
in the poems could fire the imagination. A chief who had only recently 
succeeded to office and whose reign still lay before him could be roused to 
activity by the exploits expected of him as by the knowledge that the praise 
poets could, however guardedly, sometimes blame as well as praise. Thus 
in youth a man was reminded in praises of the measure of his promise; 
in maturity his praises presented an inspired record of his deeds and 
ambitions; in old age he could contemplate the praises of his achievements 
and adventures; while after death the poems would remain as an ornament 
to his life, an inspiration and glory to his friends and followers, and a 
worthy commemoration to keep his name alive as one of the ancestors: 

People will die and their praises remain, 

It is these that will be left to mourn for them in their deserted homes 

(from a Zulu praise poem; Cope 1968: 67) 

The praise poems thus express pride in the possessions and values of the 
peoples among whom they were recited— pride in cattle, in family and clan, 
in chiefship, and in military achievement. It was war in particular that filled 
people with pride and emotion about their own actions or those of their 
friends; above all, about those of their chiefs and leaders. And the memory 
of such actions 'fills the praiser with emotion, excitement, joy mingled with 
sorrow' (Mofokeng 1945: 136). 

Praise poetry is also a vehicle for the recording of history as viewed by 
the poets. There is little straightforward cataloguing of genealogies, for a 
knowledge of these is assumed in reciter and listener and merely touched 
on allusively. It is the great deeds and characters of earlier heroes which 


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5. Panegyric 141 

are commemorated rather than their mere names or ancestry, and national 
glories are thus recounted and relived. How far back these historical poems 
can go can be illustrated from the Ngoni praise of Ngwana, the hero who 
led one group of the Ngoni northwards to their present home in Malawi in 
the early nineteenth century in flight from Shaka's wars: 

You who cut the trees and who cut the mouths, 

You the locust, the grasshopper who fixed in your hair the feathers of the 

Who went below, and climbed up, and went to bring the morning star of 

the dawn. 
You go, since you are rejected; you go and bring the armlets of wild animals; 

those of cattle will be much disputed. 
You who remember the fault of long ago. 
In descending, you descend together with the mountains. 
You who drank the blood of cattle. 

You who separated from the people of Shaka, Shaka of Mbelebele kraal. 
You who separated from the people of Nyathi the son of Mashobane; it 

thundered, it was cloudy. 
Thou resemblest cattle which were finished by wolves. 
You who originated with the people of Mzilikazi. 
You who originated with the people of Mpakana son of Lidonga. 
You who originated with the people of Ndwandwe (Read 1937: 25) 

In spite of the great social importance of praise poetry in the aristocratic 
and military society of the nineteenth century, it would be wrong to 
overemphasize the social functions of this poetry at the expense of its 
literary and artistic significance. As is clear from a detailed consideration of 
their conventional form and style, Southern Bantu praise poems represent 
a complex form of art, and one which, while in the hands of the second-rate 
it can lead to mere bombast and pompous repetition, can also give rise to 
poems of great imagination and power. It would be wrong to suppose that 
a people capable of developing such an art form were unappreciative of 
its artistic qualities whether as listeners or as reciters. And praise poems 
continue to be composed. Although the aristocratic and military basis of 
society has gone and the content of these poems has been transformed by 
new interests and preoccupations, nevertheless the form and tone of praise 
poetry remain. The style has been influential as basis for written poetry, and 
such well-known writers as Nyembezi, Mangoaela, Vilakazi, and Dhlomo 
have made studies or collections of traditional praises in which they find 
inspiration for their own writings. In some areas praise poetry may no 
longer be so popular as in earlier years, but local newspapers still abound 


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142 Oral Literature in Africa 

with written praise poems on important occasions, on the installation of a 
new paramount chief, for instance, or the arrival of some famous visitor. 
Interest in praise poetry is not confined to written forms either. Of Zulu 
panegyric, Rycroft writes: 

Its oral composition continues to be a living art among illiterate and 
semi-literate people. Young Zulu men from country areas who take up 
manual work in towns nowadays have the habit of interspersing long strings 
of their own self-praises between the verses of their guitar songs, despite the 
firm tradition that no Zulu should ever praise himself. 26 (Guitars are a sine 
qua non and are played while walking in the street). 

Self-praises here serve to re-assure and raise morale in an unfamiliar 
environment. They seem to be found particularly useful as a stimulant 
when proceeding on a courting expedition, besides being used to impress 
the ladies, on arrival. (D. Rycroft, personal communication) 

Some of the subjects treated in these modern praise poems are analogous 
to the traditional ones— new types of adventures, distinguished visitors, 
wedding feasts, self-praises in modern terms— and such topics can be 
treated with the same kind of solemnity and imagery as the traditional 
ones. Other new poems concentrate on praises of inanimate things and of 
animals (race-horses, for instance). The following brief oral poem about a 
bicycle seems typical of modern interests and treatment; it was recorded 
from the Hurutshe living in the native reserve and location of Zeerust: 

My frail little bicycle, 

The one with the scar, 27 my sister Seabelo, 

Horse of the Europeans, feet of tyre, 

Iron horse, swayer from side to side (Merwe 1941: 336) 

From the same source comes this extract from the praises of a train. It 
includes the traditional motifs of metaphorical comparison to an animal, 
parallelism, allusion, and adulatory address: 

Beast coming from Pompi, from Moretele, 

It comes with a spider's web and with gnats 28 

It having been sent along by the point of a needle and by gnats. 

Swartmuis, beast coming from Kgopi-Kgobola-diatla [bumping] 

Out of the big hole [tunnel] of the mother of the gigantic woman . . . 

Team of red and white pipits [the coaches], it gathered the track unto itself, 

26 Though see Cope 1968: 21. 

27 i.e. the bag of tools attached. 

28 A reference to the smoke. 


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5. Panegyric 143 

Itself being spotlessly clean. 

Tshutshu [noise of engine] of the dry plains 

Rhinoceros (tshukudu) of the highlands 

Beast coming from the South, it comes along steaming, 

It comes from Pompi and from Kgobola-diatla (Merwe 1941: 335) 

The same kind of style is also evident in modern written forms. One can 
compare, for instance, the following lines from another praise poem about 
a train, this time written by a Sotho student at a training institute: 

I am the black centipede, the rusher with a black nose 

Drinker of water even in the fountains of the witches, 

And who do you say will bewitch me? 

I triumphed over the one who eats a person (the sun) and over the pitch 

black darkness 
When the carnivorous animals drink blood day and night. 
I am the centipede, the mighty roarer that roars within (Van Zyl 1941: 131) 

Amidst new interests and the inevitable changes of outlook consequent on 
the passing of the old aristocratic order, the literary form of praise poetry 
still flourishes, in however modified a form, and the ancient praises still 
bring inspiration and a formal mode of literary expression to modern artists. 
Praise poetry still performs its old functions of recording outstanding 
events, expressing praise, and recalling the history of the people. 

Praise poetry, and in particular the Southern Bantu form, is among the 
best-documented types of African oral poetry. Nevertheless, much remains 
to be studied. Further collections could be made or published— so far only 
a fragment has appeared in print. There are other general problems too. 
There is the question, for instance, of how far this form, apparently so 
closely connected with kingly and aristocratic society, also occurs in non- 
aristocratic areas or periods. 29 Many detailed problems arise too about style, 
prosody, and, in particular, composition. Though many texts have been 
collected, 30 particularly from South Africa, full discussions of these are less 
common, 31 and further detailed accounts are now needed of specific forms 
in particular areas. 

29 See forthcoming work by W. Whiteley on praise songs among the Kamba; also instances 
among the Ila and Tonga of Zambia (Jones 1943: 12). 

30 Including some published in the original only, e.g. C. L. S. Nyembezi, Izibongo zamakhosi 
(Zulu), 1958 (not seen; reference in Cope 1968); Z. D. Mangoaela, Lithoko tsa marena a 
Basotho (S. Sotho), Morija, 1921 (not seen; reference in Schapera 1965). 

31 Though see Schapera 1965 (Tswana); Morris 1964 (Ankole); Cope 1968 (Zulu); Coupez 
1968 (Ruanda); and Mofokeng 1945 on Southern Sotho. Otherwise detailed discussion 
tends to be in the form of short articles. 


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6. Elegiac Poetry 

General and introductory. Akan funeral dirges: content and themes; structure, style, 
and delivery; occasions and functions; the dirge as literature. 


Elegiac poetry is an exceedingly common form of expression in Africa. We 
hear of it from all areas and in many different forms. However it is usually 
less specialized and elaborate than panegyric poetry and, perhaps for this 
reason, it has attracted less interest. 1 More private and normally lacking 
the political relevance of panegyric poetry— to which, nevertheless, it 
is closely related — it tends to be performed by non-professionals (often 
women) rather than state officials. It shades into 'lyric' poetry and in many 
cases cannot be treated as a distinctive genre. However, lamentation so 
frequently appears in a more or less stylized and literary form in Africa 
that it is worth treating on its own in this chapter. Furthermore, some 
account of Nketia's detailed work on Akan funeral dirges — a study not 
known widely enough 2 — may serve as a stimulus to further similar work, 
and at the same time illustrate some of the complex artistic conventions 
that can be distinguished in one type of non-professional oral poetry in 

The most obvious instances of elegiac poetry are those poems or songs 
performed at funeral or memorial rites. In this sense elegiac poetry ranges 
from the Islamic funeral song sung by Hausa mallams and reduced to 
writing in the nineteenth century (Robinson 1896: 2-13), or the short but 

1 I know of only two analyses in any detail, (Nketia 1955 and Anyumba 1964) though there 
are many brief accounts and passing references. 

2 It is not mentioned, for instance, in Bascom's bibliographic survey of African oral 
literature, 1964. 


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146 Oral Literature in Africa 

complex Akan funeral dirges chanted by women soloists, to the simple 
laments with leader and chorus that are sung among the Limba and others, 
laments in which the musical and balletic elements are as important as 
the words. 

The occasions for these laments differ from people to people. Often 
dirges are sung round the corpse (or round the house in which the 
corpse lies) while it is being prepared for burial. Sometimes, as among 
the Akan, this is followed by a period of public mourning, during 
which the corpse lies in state and dirges are sung. The actual burial 
may or may not be accompanied by elegies: among the Akan it is not 
(Nketia 1955: 15), while among the Limba all normal burials should be 
accompanied by singing. Deaths are also often celebrated by memorial 
ceremonies later and these too are usually accompanied by songs that 
sometimes include strictly funeral songs, and sometimes panegyric of 
the dead. 

On these occasions women are the most frequent singers. Among 
the Yoruba women lament at funeral feasts (Ellis 1894: 157f.), Akan 
dirges are chanted by women soloists (Nketia 1955: 8 and passim) and 
the zitengulo songs of Zambia are sung by women mourners (Jones 
1943: 15). The fact that these songs often involve wailing, sobbing, and 
weeping makes them particularly suitable for women— in Africa as 
elsewhere such activities are considered typically female. Also common 
are laments sung by a chorus of women, sometimes led by one soloist, 
and often accompanied by dancing or drumming. Occasionally men 
too are involved. Among the Limba, for instance, the initial mourning 
over the corpse is invariably by women, in either chorus or antiphonal 
form; but in the case of an adult male the burial itself is by the men's 
secret society and the accompanying songs are by men. Specialists 
too are sometimes conventionally mourned by their peers. Thus an 
expert hunter may have special songs sung at his funeral by fellow 
hunters (men) who come to attend the rites. Occasionally too one 
hears of professional or semi-professional singers. Thus the Yoruba 
sometimes invited professional mourners to their funerals to add an 
extra embellishment to the usual laments of the bereaved women (Ellis 
1894: 157). 


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6. Elegiac Poetry 147 

Figure 12. Funeral songs in the dark in Kamabai, 1961 (photo Ruth Finnegan). 

Many of these songs are topical and ephemeral. That is, they are composed 
for use at the funeral of one individual and relate to him only though 
they naturally use the accepted idioms and forms. Thus among the Ila 
and Tonga of Zambia, the zitengulo mourning songs are sung only once: 
they are very short and composed by a woman who mourns and thinks 
over the life's work of the deceased; she bases her song on this, starts to 
sing little by little, and adds words and melody until the song is complete 
(Jones 1943: 15). Other funeral songs, perhaps particularly the choral ones, 
seem to have a set form repeated more or less exactly at all funerals, or all 
funerals of a certain category— though on this point the evidence is often 
not very precise. There are also instances of songs or poems said to have 
been composed initially for some other occasion but taken over for regular 
use at funerals. The Chadwicks speak of elegies in Ethiopia said to have 
been preserved 'for several centuries' and instance the famous and much 
sung elegy for Saba Gadis (Chadwicks iii, 1940: 517). Another case is the 
Ibo song originally sung by warriors to their leader Ojea as he lay dying at 
the moment of victory, but now used as a generalized funeral dirge: 

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148 Oral Literature in Africa 

Ojea, noble Ojea, look round before you depart, 
Ojea, see, the fight is over; 

Fire has consumed the square and then the home, 
Ojea, see, the fight is over. 

Ojea, Brother Ojea, ponder and look, 

Ojea, see, the fight is over; 

If rain soaks the body, will the clothes be dry? 

Ojea, ah! The fight is over (Osadebay 1949: 153) 

The content of these elegies varies. At times— as in this Ibo example— there is 
no direct reference to the deceased. But often he is specifically addressed, and 
praise is one of the most frequent motifs. Among the Yoruba praise poetry is 
recited or played on drums at funerals as well as on other occasions (Gbadamosi 
and Beier 1959: 50), and in Akan dirges the singer calls on the deceased by 
his praise names and lauds his great deeds and ancestry. Occasionally the 
personal reference or address to the deceased is deepened by more general 
allusions. This is well illustrated by the Yoruba funeral song from Ede: 

I say rise, and you will not rise. 

If Olu is told to rise, Olu will rise. 

If Awo is told to rise, he will rise. 

The newly wedded bride gets up at a bidding, 

Although she dares not call her husband by name. 

The elephant on waking gets up, 

The buffalo on waking gets up, 

The elephant lies down like a hill. 

Alas! The elephant has fallen, 

And can never get up again! 

You say you have neither wealth nor children, 

Not even forty cowries with which to buy salt. 

You muffled head, rise! (Gbadamosi and Beier 1959: 51) 

We also find resignation and acceptance of the inevitable. These are, for 
instance, mentioned as frequent characteristics of much Sudanese funeral 
poetry (Tescaroli 1961: 9). Other poems dwell on the personal feelings and 
experience of the mourner. Ellis quotes from a Yoruba example: 

I go to the market; it is crowded. There are many people there, but 
he is not among them. I wait, but he comes not. Ah me! I am alone 

(Ellis 1894: 157). 

The same note of personal grief is heard in the Acholi funeral dirge: 

I wait on the pathway in vain 
He refuses to come again 


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6. Elegiac Poetry 149 

Only one, beloved of my mother oh, 

My brother blows like the wind 

Fate has destroyed chief of youth completely 

I wait on the pathway in vain (Okot 1963: 209) 4 

or again in an Ngoni lament: 

I have stared at the setting (death) of my husband. 

They say, show me the pool that has a crocodile. 

Let me throw myself away. 

What can I do? Alas! (Read 1937: 16) 

We are not, unfortunately, told the details of the occasion on which the 
much quoted Bushman lament, 'The broken string', was composed or 
performed, but in this too we see that the main concentration is on the 
singer's feeling: he is mourning his friend, a magician and rain-maker: 

People were those who 
Broke for me the string. 

The place became like this to me, 

On account of it, 
Because the string was that which broke for me. 

The place does not feel to me, 
As the place used to feel to me, 

On account of it. 

The place feels as if it stood open before me, 
Because the string has broken for me. 

The place does not feel pleasant to me, 
On account of it (Bleek and Lloyd 1911: 237) 

The elegies so far discussed have been those specifically connected with 
funeral rites of various kinds, or, at least, poems or songs mourning the 
death of some individual. There is also, however, a sense in which elegiac 
poetry also includes poems that take death or sorrow as their general 
themes without being connected with funerals or actual mourning. In 
this sense, elegiac poetry in Africa does not often seem to be a distinctly 
recognized genre. Although certain dirges (such as those of the Luo or 
the Akan) are sometimes performed in other contexts and with other 
purposes, funerals remain their primary and distinctive occasions, and 
death is merely one — and not apparently a very common one — of the 


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150 Oral Literature in Africa 

many subjects that occur in lyric poetry generally. In this sense, then, 
elegiac poetry does not seem a type that demands extensive discussion 

The sort of way, however, that the theme of death is occasionally 
used outside a dirge is worth illustrating from the impressive Ngoni 
song recorded by Read. This is a very old poem, originally intended for 
performance at a marriage, but now sung on other occasions (including 
church meetings). The refrain, 'the earth does not get fat', is a reference to 
the way the earth is always receiving the dead, yet is never satisfied: 

The earth does not get fat. It makes an end of those who wear the head 

plumes [the older men] 
We shall die on the earth. 

The earth does not get fat. It makes an end of those who act swiftly as heroes. 
Shall we die on the earth? 

Listen O earth. We shall mourn because of you. 
Listen O earth. Shall we all die on the earth? 

The earth does not get fat. It makes an end of the chiefs. 
Shall we all die on the earth? 

The earth does not get fat. It makes an end of the women chiefs. 
Shall we die on the earth? 

Listen O earth. We shall mourn because of you. 
Listen O earth. Shall we all die on the earth? 

The earth does not get fat. It makes an end of the nobles. 
Shall we die on the earth? 

The earth does not get fat. It makes an end of the royal women. 
Shall we die on the earth? 

Listen O earth. We shall mourn because of you. 
Listen O earth. Shall we all die on the earth? 

The earth does not get fat. It makes the end of the common people. 
Shall we die on the earth? 

The earth does not get fat. It makes an end of all the beasts. 
Shall we die on the earth? 

Listen you who are asleep, who are left tightly closed in the land. 

Shall we all sink into the earth? 

Listen O earth the sun is setting tightly. 

We shall all enter into the earth (Read 1937: 14-15) 

Rather than generalizing further about elegiac poetry or reproducing 
further isolated examples, it seems best to concentrate on one example, the 
Akan funeral dirge. From this something of the social context of the form 


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6. Elegiac Poetry 151 

and its complex conventions will emerge. It will also show how some of 
the familiar questions of literary criticism can be pursued with profit in the 
case of oral, as of written, poetry. 3 


The funeral dirges of the Akan have been intensively studied by Nketia who 
published his collection and analysis in 1955. Among the Akan-speaking 
peoples of southern Ghana dirges form just one among their many types of 
poetry. They are sung or intoned by women as part of the public mourning 
during funerals. In them 'speech [is] inlaid with music, sobs and tears and 
conjoined to bodily movement 7 (Nketia 1955: 118). Unlike some of the lyric 
poetry to be discussed later, however, the emphasis is on the words rather than 
the music, and the poems are performed by soloists without the accompaniment 
of either musical instruments or a chorus of supporting singers. 4 

Here in introduction are two examples from Nketia's collection. The 
first is sung by a woman for her dead son, Gyima (poetically referred to as 
her 'grandsire'): 

Grandsire Gyima with a slim but generous arm, 

Fount of satisfaction, 

My friend Adu on whom I depend, 

I depend on you for everything, even for drinking water. 

If I am not dependent on you [i.e. if there is any doubt that I depend on you], 

see what has become of me. 
Although a man, you are a mother to children, 
A man who takes another's child for his own, 
Who builds mighty but empty houses, 

Who is restive until he has fought and won, Osibirikuo, Gyane the short one, 
Dwentiwaa's husband, and a man of valour. (Nketia 1955: 195) 

In the second example the mourner is singing about her dead mother: 

Grandchild of grandsire Kwaagyei of Hwedeemu that drinks the water of 

Daughter of a spokesman, who is herself a spokesman, 
Mother, it may appear that all is well with me, but I am struggling. 

Further references to elegiac poetry include Anyumba 1964 (Luo); Beaton 1935-6 (Bari); 
Tescaroli 1961, part 2 (Sudan); Gutmann 1927; Stappers 1950; Hulstaert 1961; Littmann 
1949. See also Moore 1968 (mainly but not exclusively on written forms). 
In addition to the dirges described here the Akan also have choral laments sung by 
groups of women in solo and chorus form (not discussed here). 


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152 Oral Literature in Africa 

Nyaakowaa of Anteade and grandchild of Osafo Agyeman, 
O, mother, I am struggling; all is not as well as it appears. 
Mother, if you would send me something, I would like a parcel and a big 
cooking pot that entertains strangers. 

The god opem has 

failed; the gourd of charms has won. 

O, mother, there is no branch above which I could grasp. 

Mother, if you would send me something, I would like parched corn 

So that I could eat it raw if there was no fire to cook it. 

Mother, the parrot will catch a skin disease from the fowls and die! 
Grandchild of grandsire Kwaagyei of Hwendeemu that drinks Abono, 
Grandsire, the mighty pot, saviour of strangers, 
O, mother, I am struggling; all is not as well with me as it appears. 
Mother who sends gifts, send me something when someone is coming 
this way. 

Mother, there is no fire in the deserted dwelling 
From which I could take a brand to light my fire. 
My helpful Wicker Basket that comes to my aid with lumps of salt, 5 
O, mother, I would weep blood for you, if only Otire's child would be 
allowed to. 

Grandsire, the crab that knows the hiding place of alluvial gold, 

What is the matter, child of the spokesman? 

Mother has allowed this death to take me by surprise. 

O, mother, I am struggling; all is not as well with me as it appears. 

(Nketia 1955: 196) 

Nketia describes in some detail the conventional language and themes 
of dirges— themes which throw light on features which might otherwise 
seem puzzling or banal. The deceased is the focal point. He may be 
addressed, his individual qualities described, or he may be identified 
with one or several ancestors. To refer to him the mourner often uses a 
series of different names that vary the language as well as honouring the 
dead. Besides proper names the Akan also have corresponding 'by-names' 
and these often occur in dirges for affective reasons. The same applies to 
praise appellations, terms which 'describe in a convenient short or gnomic 
form the qualities or expected qualities, accomplishment or status of a 
holder of the corresponding proper name' (Nketia 1955: 31). Thus in the 
first dirge quoted above, Gyima's praise names include Anko-anna ('one 
who is restive until he has fought and won') and Dwentiwaa kunu barima 

5 Salt in the past was a very precious and scarce commodity. 


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6. Elegiac Poetry 153 

Katakyie ('Dwentiwaa's husband and a man of valour'). Other instances 
of praise names can be translated as 'the beetle that eats away raffia' or 
'Noble Apea Kusi, feller of Odum trees' (Nketia 1955: 32). They may in fact 
have been won by an earlier individual of the same name, but are used for 
contemporaries who are imaginatively pictured in the dirge as possessing 
the same qualities or status as their famous namesakes. The poetry is also 
further embellished by another type of reference to the deceased— the 
'dirge names'. These are sometimes made up of a string of by-names, praise 
names, and other words, but also have less usual forms according to which 
a person of a given proper name can be addressed by any one of several 
dirge names. Many of these names cannot be translated — for example, 
one of the dirge names of a man called Apea: Nyenenkye Asamanwoma 
Apeantummaa (Nketia 1955: 33)— but used in a dirge they introduce an 
elevated and high-sounding effect. 

Beside these specialized names, the deceased is also addressed by 
kinship terms and terms of endearment. In the second dirge quoted, the 
dead woman was addressed throughout as 'mother' and other such terms 
('father', 'uncle', etc.) are frequent. The relationship to some third person 
is also used; the deceased may appear as, for instance, 'The Drummer's 
child', 'Father of Obempon and Ayirebiwaa', or 'Grandchild of Wealth'. 
Finally, a name of reference may be used to associate him with his clan or 
group— 'Child of the Biretuo clan of Sekyere', 'Grandchild of the Buffalo' 
(i.e. of the ekoona clan), or 'The white fowl spotted by the roving hawk' (i.e. 
of the Bosomtwe Ntoro group) (Nketia 1955: 33-4). 

Besides these ornamental names, qualities are often dwelt on. 
Benevolence in particular is frequently lauded in the dirges. It is referred to 
in such stock phrases as 'The slender arm full of benevolence', 'Grandmother, 
the big cooking pot that entertains strangers', 'You are a mighty tree with 
big branches laden with fruit. When children come to you, they find 
something to eat', or 'Fount of satisfaction' (Nketia 1955: 33-4). Sympathy 
and kindness are also picked out: 'He is a father to other people's children'; 
'He was like the tree of the plantain planted behind the house, that gave 
shade and coolness'; and frequent references to the wisdom of the dead are 
expected, expressed by the singer lamenting that she no longer has anyone 
to give her advice. Fruitfulness is also commonly described, and one of 
the conventional comparisons is between a fruitful woman and the okro 
fruit with its many seeds: 'Mother the okro, full of the seeds of many issues 
and proven.' These stock ways of referring to the deceased both elevate his 
good points and bring home to the community the loss it has suffered. 


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154 Oral Literature in Africa 

While the person of the deceased is the focus of attention, there are 
other themes. One of the most frequent is that of the ancestor. Among the 
Akan, ancestry is important, both through the mother (significant for most 
social purposes) and through the father who represents the 'spiritual' side. 
In dirges both types of ancestry are commemorated, and the fact brought 
out that a member of two social groups (the father's and the mother's) has 
been lost. Thus the paternal ancestry of the deceased is often referred to 
in special name-clusters which indicate the ntoro (paternal group) of the 
person being mourned, names such as 'Nwanwanyane, offspring of the 
Leopard', or 'Gyebiri Siaw Anim, the nobleman'. References to ancestors 
in the female line are even more common, and the kinship of the deceased 
to a series of ancestors is emphasized. Some dirges concentrate almost 
completely on this theme. One opens 

Kotoku man and grandchild of the Vanguard of Kotoku, 

Grandchild of Ampoma: our lineage originates from Kotoku. 

Grandchild of Baabu: our lineage hails from Kade . . . (Nketia 1955: 22) 

and then continues through the various relationships of the deceased. 
Particularly in royal dirges one of the ancestors may be singled out for 
praise. An ancestor's bravery, skill, or leadership may be mentioned. His 
use of power, for example, is dwelt on in one dirge: 

In the olden days, when you were 

On your way to Akora Kusi's house, 

You would stumble over skulls; 

Vultures got up to greet you; 

Blue bottle flies buzzed round you, 

As if to say, Alas! (Nketia 1955: 23) 

In this way the deceased can be praised indirectly through his ancestors' 
great deeds. At funerals the Akan remind themselves both that their 
ancestors too were once human beings and that they themselves, as well as 
the deceased, are not without an ancestry and a historic tradition of which 
they can be proud. As a mourner sings: 

We are from Creation. 

It was my people who first came here, 

And were joined later by the Fante Hosts. 

It was my grandfather that founded Komenda. 

I am the grandchild of the Parrot that eats palm nuts. 

It was my grandfather that weighed gold 

And the scales broke into pieces under its weight. 

Grandchild of Apea Korankye hails from Abooso. (Nketia 1955: 26) 


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6. Elegiac Poetry 155 

Rather similar to the theme of ancestors is that of places. The identity of 
the deceased (or his ancestors) is clarified by adding the name of his home 
or place of origin (the link between the dead and their mourners is often 
brought out by the fact that they share a common home). This convention 
often introduces historic evocations into a dirge. It also adds colour to the 
words, for it is common for a descriptive phrase to be added to the name itself: 
'Asumegya Santemanso, where the leopard roars and comes to town for its 
prey' or 'Hwerebe Akwasiase, where the Creator first erected a fireplace and 
placed a beating stick by it' (Nketia 1955: 41). References to places can either 
be interspersed throughout the poem or, in combination with the theme of 
the ancestor, form the main framework on which the whole dirge is built up. 

While the main focus of the dirge is on the deceased— his nature and 
qualities, his ancestors, his historic home — the mourner also makes certain 
reflections. There are certain stock ways in which these are expressed. The 
dead man is often pictured as setting out on a journey, so that part of what 
the mourner is doing is bidding him farewell— 'Farewell, thou priest' or 
'Receive condolences and proceed on' (Nketia 1955: 44). The sorrow of 
parting is brought out in stock phrases like 'I call him, but in vain', T would 
weep blood' (if only that would bring you back), or, with more passionate 
emphasis on the mourner's sense of loss, T am in flooded waters. Who 
will rescue me?' and 'There is no branch above which I could grasp'. The 
mourner wishes for a continued friendship with the dead man even when 
he reaches the world of spirits, and speaks of wishing to go with him, or 
to exchange gifts or messages; this is why the singer so often asks the dead 
to 'send me something when someone is coming' — an imaginative rather 
than a literal request. The mourner expresses her sorrow and loss through 
particular concrete images rather than through general statements about 
death. Instead of speaking of death taking away her support, she sings 
'The tree that gives shade and coolness has been hewn down'; and, when 
she alludes to the shortness of life, she uses the conventional metaphor in 
which the duration of life is compared to the time a market woman takes to 
sell her goods— 'What were your wares that they are sold out so quickly?' 

Among all these various motifs and conventions of content and 
expression the individual mourner can select her own. The use of many of 
the stock forms of expression does not necessarily mean a lack of sincerity 
on her part or that she creates little artistic impact. As Nketia puts it, the 
'traditional forms of expression [are] still pregnant with emotion to the 
Akan, expressions which are not considered outworn in spite of frequent 
use' (Nketia 1955: 49). 


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Four main types of dirge can be distinguished. All are built up on the 
conventional themes and forms of expression already described, but they 
vary both in the arrangement of the material and in the scope given for the 
spontaneity of the mourner. 

The first, type A', is the most stereotyped and dignified. This kind 
of dirge is short and marked by unity of subject. Besides mention of the 
deceased, reference is normally made to just one ancestor, one of his 
qualities, and one single place. Many different dirges of this type can be 
built up about the same person; the same ancestor can be brought in but 
with a different quality described; or all the references could be changed, 
with a different ancestor introduced and a different place of domicile, 
forming the framework for another set of dirges round that theme. In spite 
of the stereotyped structure, then, the possibility of variation according to 
the singer's choice in a particular situation is manifold. 

Such dirges open with a name, usually of an ancestor, and this theme 
is then taken up in the next portion of the poem, referred to as the subject, 
in which the ancestor's qualities are mentioned. He may be associated with 
some historical event, or with some message or observation. This portion of 
the dirge can be short or long according to the theme chosen. This is followed 
by a break, a point at which the dirge name of the deceased is inserted. In 
other words, until this point the dirge can be used for any member of the 
group associated with the ancestor, but the insertion of the dirge name ties 
the poem to a particular individual. After the dirge name, the formal part 
of the poem can be ended, often with the theme of the place of origin and 
domicile. By linking them both to the same place, the ancestor mentioned in 
the opening and the deceased just referred to by his dirge name are brought 
together. The dirge may stop at this point, but if the mourner wishes she can 
extend it by adding her own reflections in rather less conventional style. 

Type A' dirges, then, can be seen to fall into four sections— (a) opening, 
(b) subject, (c) insertion, (d) close, followed by an optional addition, (e) the 
extension. The structure can be illustrated in the following example: 

(a) Karikari Poti of Asumegya. 

(b) When I am on the way, do not let me meet 
Gye-me-di, the terror. 

It is Karikari Poti, Gye-me-di, the terror 
That spells death to those who meet him. 

(c) Pampam Yiadom Boakye Akum-ntem. 


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6. Elegiac Poetry 157 

(d) Grandchild of Karikari Poti hails from Asumegya Santemanso 
Where the leopard roars and comes to town for its prey. 

(e) O, mother, 

(What of) Your children and I. 

O, mother, 

Your children and I will feed on the spider, 

The mouse is too big a game. (Nketia 1955: 57-8) 

Though dirges of the other three types are somewhat less stereotyped, 
similar detailed analyses could be made of their conventional structure. 
Type 'B' is made up of a series of short stanzas which can follow each 
other in any order and are themselves structured according to certain 
conventional patterns. An example of this type is the three-stanza dirge: 

Grandchild of Boampon of Asokore clan 
That walked in majesty amid flying bullets: 
Child of a leading Spokesman. 

He was an elephant tusk which I was going to use 
for carving out a trumpet, 
Ofori, child of Konkonti. 

Father Apau that overpowers bullets: 

Offspring of Nkwamfo Abredwom. 

Alas! Death gave me no warning 

so that I might get ready. 

Mother will go: she has not come back yet. 

I shall follow her. (Nketia 1955: 200) 

Type 'C dirges are constructed on cumulative linear stanzas, sometimes 
marked off by a reflection or statement— a simple style often used for 
ordinary people. Such a dirge might open 

Grandchild of Minta that hails from Dunkesease. 

Grandchild of Obeeko Asamoa that hails from Bonkaben. 

Grandchild of Obiyaa that hails from Aborodesu. (Nketia 1955: 65) 

and so on through a dozen lines or so. Even in these very simple dirges 
emotion is aroused through the connotations of the names introduced. 
Some women, however, do not consider this type to possess much appeal 
or depth and instead prefer type 'D' dirges. This type, while not possessing 
the dignity of the first two, has the attraction of giving more scope to the 
mourner's individual emotions and reflections. The conventional themes 
are included but may be woven into the dirge as the individual singer 
wishes. 'Grandchild of grandsire Kwaagyei' quoted earlier is one example 
of this type. Another is part of a dirge sung by a Cape Coast woman for her 


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158 Oral Literature in Africa 

mother, a poem which begins lightly and gains depth as the sorrow of the 
mourner grows in intensity: 

Mother! Mother! 

Aba Yaa! 

You know our plight! 

Mother! you know our plight. 
You know that no one has your wisdom. 
Mother, you have been away long. 
What of the little ones left behind? 


Who would come and restore our breath, 

Unless my father Adorn himself comes? 

Alas! Alas! Alas! 

Quite often it is a struggle for us! 

It is a long time since our people left. 

Amba, descendant of the Parrot that eats palm nuts, hails from the Ancestral 

I cannot find refuge anywhere. 

I, Amba Adoma, 

It was my grandfather that weighed gold ^P 

And the scales broke under its weight. 

I am a member of Grandsire Ksse's household: 

We are at a loss where to go: 

Let our people come, for we are in deep distress. 

When someone is coming, let them send us something. 

Yes, I am the grandchild of the Parrot that eats palm nuts (Nketia 1955: 65) 

A final example of this type illustrates how the conventional themes and 
stock terms of address can be woven together into an original piece by the 
mourner in which she can dwell at length on the deceased and her own 
state. It was sung for a Mass Education Officer who died in 1952, and is 
in the form of a continuous poem with two slight breaks after 'father on 
whom I wholly depend': 

Valiant Owusu, 

The stranger on whom the citizen of the town depends, 
Father, allow my children and me to depend on you 
So that we may all of us get something to eat, 
Father on whom I wholly depend. 

When father sees me, he will hardly recognize me. 

He will meet me carrying an old torn mat and a horde of flies. 

Father with whom I confer, 


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6. Elegiac Poetry 159 

My children and I will look to you. 
Father on whom I wholly depend. 


My saviour, 

Father the slender arm full of kindness, 

Father the Rover whose footprints are on all paths. (Nketia 1955: 71) 

Certain types of dirges are considered suitable for particular occasions— types 
'A' and 'B', for instance, are held to be more dignified and thus appropriate 
for royal funerals— but at any funeral the mourner is free to sing whichever 
kind she prefers. 

The detailed linguistic style and delivery of dirges are also discussed 
by Nketia (1955: Chs. 5, 7). The diction is marked by the great frequency of 
keywords throughout the poems, terms closely associated with the main 
themes already mentioned. Thus there is constant use of personal names, 
names of places and sources of drinking water, kinship terms and terms of 
address, and, finally, terms referring to an individual's clan or paternal group. 
Certain verbs of identification are also particularly common, for example, 
ne (to be) and firi (to come from), 6 which occur in conjunction with the 
theme of the ancestor and of the place of domicile. Besides these keywords, 
all part of the mourner's stock-in-trade from which she constructs her 
dirge, there are also conventional expressions used to describe someone's 
attributes or express farewell or condolence. The deceased or his ancestor 
may be described and praised by such set phrases as 'fount of satisfaction', 
'the big cooking pot', 'large breast', or 'friend Adu: one on whom someone 
depends'. The mourner may also refer to her despair and sense of loss by 
using verbs which mean 'to get dark', 'to be flooded', 'to be homesick or 
hungry for a person', or nouns like 'coolness', 'darkness', or 'empty house'. 

Many conventional arrangements form part of the artistic style. These 
include name clusters, repetitions of key-words, and such combinations 
as, for instance, Asim Abenaa's grandchild-and-my-mother comes from 
Ahensan', which follows the common pattern by which the term nana 
(grandchild) is combined with personal names, kinship terms, and the 
verb firi (come from). Similar conventions can be observed in the structure 
of sentences. Of the varying patterns, the most common is a construction 
with a front-placed nominal, that is, sentences opening with a name or 
name cluster— as in Ano Yaa Kani whose kola tree bears fruit out of season' 

6 Many other examples of such conventional collocations are given in Nketia as part of his 
detailed picture of linguistic conventions in dirges (Nketia 1955: 86-93). 


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160 Oral Literature in Africa 

or 'Asim Abenaa of Ahensan, the Queen of old in whose vessels we grind 
millet'. This placing of names at the start of sentences is a characteristic 
feature of the language of Akan dirges and forms a conventional basis on 
which chains of reference can be built up. 

Apart from these specialized syntactical forms and certain obscure 
names and figurative expressions, the language of dirges is relatively 
straightforward. Indeed the style as a whole is often simple and the main 
units within the dirge (the stanzas) tend to be short, in keeping with the 
circumstances of the performance. The compressed and allusive expression 
can also be connected with this; names and historical events, for example, 
are referred to briefly rather than described or narrated in full. By these 
means, in spite of the ordinary language and short span of the poem, a 
whole range of highly charged impressions can be conveyed. 

When the prosody of Akan dirges is considered, it is clear that there is no 
even beat in a piece as a whole, though there is a scattered use of prosodic 
patterns of various kinds throughout the poem. Stress is not significant 
and there is no systematic use of tones or syllables. There is, however, a 
diffused occurrence of tonal and phonological patterns. These depend on 
the nature of the lines or linear units in dirges. These units are relatively 
easily identified through a number of phonological and grammatical forms 
which mark them off, such as a concluding particle (ee, oo), pause, or sob; 
parallel formation within a line; break in sequence marked by repetition or 
pronoun referring back; and occasional end-patterning (frequently tonal). 
Within linear units there is often repetition of single phonological terms 
(as, for instance, the s in the line Osoro se meresen asase), of syllables and 
groups of syllables in words (e.g. Sakrafowtw onye butuioo), or of words 
or segments (e.g. Yese yenni nton, yenni abusua). Repetitions of tone 
patterns also occur within lines; for example, in the line odehye damfoo boo 
dam, the high tone dam is in each case preceded by a low tone, and the 
repetition of the low-high sequence is noticeable. Within groups of lines 
similar repetitions can be observed: whole lines may be repeated, the first 
or second halves of succeeding lines may be identical, or there may be cross 
repetitions with the word or words in the end position appearing again at 
the beginning of the following line. This 'prosody of repetition', which is 
copiously illustrated by Nketia, fulfils some of the functions of rhythm and 
brings out the poetic style conventionally associated with Akan dirges. 

This poetic flavour is further marked by the musical features of 
the dirge. It is true that, for the Akan, the verbal content of the dirge is 
paramount; Nketia quotes the remark that 'it is not so much the beauty 


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6. Elegiac Poetry 161 

of the voice as the depth of the verbal forms, in particular the range of the 
praise appellations that counts'. 2 However, musical aspects of form and 
performance also play some part in the artistry of the dirge as actually 
heard (Nketia 1955, esp. Ch. 7). 

There are two different ways of singing dirges. The first is to adopt 
a type of wailing voice in which the words of the dirge are 'spoken' and 
the contours of the melody reflect the speech contours of the performer, 
sometimes accompanied by a few tuneful fragments. There are special 
musical conventions for the treatment of interjections, and this type of 
delivery also gives scope for the use of the sob, which is often uttered on 
the syllable hi and rapidly repeated perhaps five or six times. The other 
form is more purely musical. A fairly normal singing voice is used, with 
melodic contours resembling those of songs. However, there is a general 
tendency for dirge melodies to begin high and move down to a low 
resting point at the close. There are some traditional tunes associated with 
fragments of dirges, but in the main, whichever musical mode she employs, 
the singer makes up her own tunes as she goes along. Unlike many other 
types of songs, the rhythm of Akan dirges is free in the sense that there 
is no handclapping or percussion accompaniment to the singing, nor is it 
intended for dancing. This, in conjunction with the fact that the mourner 
herself acts as both soloist and chorus, gives the individual mourner greater 
scope to treat the subject in her own manner, without reference to others 
present, and to express her own feelings in the words and melodies she 


The occasions of the Akan dirge are easily described. It is a literary form 
expressly composed and performed for the occasion of a funeral and it 
takes its place alongside such other social expressions as drumming, the 
firing of guns, singing, wailing, and speaking. Indeed, some of Nketia's 
informants were unwilling or unable to reproduce their dirges apart from 
the stimulation of an actual funeral; as they frequently explained, 'they 
could not utter the words of the dirge without shedding tears or fasting' 
(Nketia 1855: 2). 

Funerals are important and memorable events among the Akan. They 
usually open with the preparation of the corpse, a stage at which no dirges 
are sung. In the second phase of public mourning, however, dirge singing 
is a central part of the proceedings. As Nketia describes it: 


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162 Oral Literature in Africa 

From among the confused noises will be heard the voice of many a woman 
mourner singing a dirge in pulsating tones in honour of the dead or his 
ancestors or some other person whose loss she is reminded by the present 
death, for 'One mourns one's relation during the funeral of another 
person' .... The dirge is made the culminating point of the preparation for 
the funeral as well as the beginning of public mourning. Grief and sorrow 
may be personal and private, nevertheless Akan society expects that on the 
occasion of a funeral they should be expressed publicly through the singing 
of the dirge (Nketia 1955: 8). 

During this stage the women who sing the dirges pace about among those 
attending the funeral, pausing before the corpse or the chief mourners. 
Though there is no dancing to dirges, the singer makes gestures and 
gracefully rocks her head to add to the pathos of what she sings, and, like 
the chief mourners, she too is expected to fast as a sign of the sincerity of 
her anguish. There is great freedom as to how and what any performer 
sings, for dirges are not normally an organized performance, so that the 
individual can draw on her own resources and originality to express and 
evoke the emotion she is expected to feel. As the funeral ceremonies go 
on, the dirges tend to become fewer and fewer, partly because the singers 
become worn out by the physical and emotional strain of fasting, anguished 
lament, and pacing about the public gathering. Nevertheless, occasional 
dirges are heard from time to time until the end of the funeral: 

The funeral dirge is heard with diminishing frequency and from fewer and 
fewer mourners, though it rarely ceases until the funeral is over. A sudden 
outburst is heard from time to time from a relation while all others may be 
resting. And so the funeral goes on until after the third day of the event of 
death when fasting and mourning cease (Nketia 1955: 15). 

The funeral is sometimes followed by remembrance ceremonies some 
weeks after the death; some dirges are sung on these occasions, but they 
play a relatively minor part. 

Very occasionally dirges are heard outside the context of a funeral. But 
funerals remain the conventional setting, and at them dirges are obligatory. 
In this context the dirge is, above all, a means of praising the dead person. 
He is honoured and mourned, and, as well, the general links between the 
past and present, the living and the dead, are brought out in stock themes. 
The sorrow felt by the mourners at the funeral is not only expressed in this 
conventional form, but can actually be heightened by a skilled singer who 
evokes the pathos of the situation through her passionate utterances. These 
dirges, in fact, form the mainstay of any funeral particularly at the outset; it 


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6. Elegiac Poetry 163 

is only towards the later stages that the dirges of the women are reinforced 
and finally replaced by music and dancing. 

The Akan funeral dirge is a conventional medium of expression, with 
its own canons of form, theme, and delivery as well as its own traditional 
occasion when it is performed. There are certain stock forms of phraseology 
which are regarded as obligatory, and errors in these are quickly corrected. 
Nevertheless, within these limits both variations and scope for individual 
creativeness are possible. Traditionally all Akan girls were expected to 
learn how to sing and compose dirges. They had to master the traditional 
themes and language, but when performing they were free to exercise their 
individual tastes and express their own sentiments. The dirges are thus 
both fixed and flexible. For the Akan the funeral dirge is a form recognized 
not only for its clear social importance but also for its aesthetic merit. Far 
from being random or wholly spontaneous, the Akan dirge has its own 
complex and sophisticated conventions, a literary tradition at the service of 
the individual composer. 


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7. Religious Poetry 

Introductory. Didactic and narrative religious poetry and the Islamic tradition; 
the Swahili tenzi. Hymns, prayers, and incantations: general survey; the Fante 
Methodist lyric. Mantic poetry: Sotho divining praises; odu Ifa (Yoruba). 

There is a great variety of religious poetry in Africa. There are hymns, 
prayers, praises, possession songs, and oracular poetry, all with their 
varying conventions, content, and function in different cultures. They 
range from the simple one- or two-line songs of Senegalese women in 
spirit possession rituals 1 or the mystical songs of Southern Rhodesia with 
their many nonsense words (Tracey 1929: 99). to the specialized hymns to 
West African deities or the elaborate corpus of Ifa oracular literature which 
is so striking a phenomenon among the Yoruba of Southern Nigeria. We 
should also take account of the prevalence in certain areas of the religious 
literature associated with the influence of the world religions in Africa. 
There is the Arabic-influenced poetry of the Swahili in East Africa and of 
Islamized peoples such as the Fulani or Hausa in the northern portions of 
West Africa; the ecclesiastical poetry, associated with the Coptic Church, of 
the dabteras of Ethiopia; and, from less ancient origins, hymns and lyrics 
arising from the recent impact of Christian missions in many parts of the 
continent. 2 In these cases it is common for a written tradition of religious 
literature to coexist, and to some extent overlap, with an oral tradition. 3 

There are three main ways in which poetry can be regarded as being 
religious. Firstly, the content may be religious, as in verse about mythical 
actions of gods or direct religious instruction or invocation. Secondly, the 

1 G. Balandier, 'Femmes "possedees" et leurs chants', Presence qfr. 5, 1948. 

2 On Ethiopia see Chadwicks iii, 1940: 503ff. and further references given in Ch. 3: 51. On 
Islamic and Christian poetry see below. 

3 It is because of this overlap that I have not thought it inappropriate to include some 
consideration of the largely written religious poetry in Swahili. 


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166 Oral Literature in Africa 

poetry may be recited by those who are regarded as religious specialists. 
Thirdly it may be performed on occasions which are generally agreed to 
be religious ones. These three criteria do not always coincide. Hymns, for 
example, may have definite religious content and be sung on religious 
occasions, but they may or may not be performed by religious experts; 
oracular poetry may be recited by priests (as in Yoruba divination) but 
neither the content nor the occasion be markedly religious; and didactic 
verse, like that of the Swahili, may have a theological content and be recited 
by specialists but not, it seems, be performed on particularly religious 
occasions. I do not want to propose any strict definition of religion here; the 
reader may exclude any examples that seem to him to be only marginally 
religious or include certain types of poetry such as Tyric' or 'dirges' that 
have been treated in other chapters. However, I am not including here 
poetry that is religious only in the sense that it is performed on 'ritual' 
occasions such as the ceremonies to do with initiation, 4 marriage, or death. 5 

Figure 13. Limba girls' initiation: 'Coming Out'. The young girls line up with 

whitened faces to show off their new singing and dancing skills; all spectators 

join in the choruses. Biriwa, Sierra Leone, 1961 (photo Ruth Finnegan). 

4 See, for example, some of the initiation texts given in Dieterlen 1965. 

5 Dirges are considered in Ch. 6, marriage and initiation songs, etc., mentioned in Ch. 9; 
some further references on initiation songs are given in Ch. 8. 

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7. Religious Poetry 167 


Though didactic and narrative elements are sometimes found in a 
rudimentary form in the invocations and divination literature that will 
be discussed later, they do not typically appear in Africa as developed 
poetic forms. 'Myths' tend to appear in prose rather than verse 6 and the 
songs embedded in them are not usually independent enough to count 
as narrative religious poems in themselves. Histories sometimes appear 
in verse with certain religious overtones— as, for instance, the Akan drum 
history quoted in Chapter 17— and praise and elegy for dead ancestors 
may in a sense be both religious and narrative; but the religious aspect 
does seem to be somewhat secondary in terms of content, occasion, and 
performer. The same is true for the poems associated with initiation and 
other rituals— when these are religious in content they are more concerned 
with invocation or praise than any explicitly didactic interest. 

Islamic verse is the exception. In the areas where Arabic models have 
been influential through the tradition of Islam, religious poetry, often in 
written form, occurs with a pronounced homiletic and sometimes narrative 
emphasis. Such religious poetry occurs, for instance, among the Hausa and 
others in West Africa. Although written in the local language, it is often 
directly influenced by the Arabic models and contains many Arabic words 
and sentiments. 7 These poems typically open with some such invocation as 

In the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful; and may the peace of 
God be upon him after whom there is no prophet 

and continue in a didactic fashion about, for example, the deceitfulness 
of this life, Heaven, Hell, pilgrimage to Mecca, exhortations to follow 
Mohammed, or prayers for divine assistance. This religious literature 
is a specialist form, often with named authors learned in Islam, and for 
its composition and propagation it relies primarily on the written word. 
Nevertheless, it is not totally divorced from the oral tradition, and there 
are instances of these religious poems being transmitted both orally and 

6 Though see the discussion in Ch. 13: 361ff. 

7 Migeod ii, 1913, Ch. 18. On Hausa, see C. H. Robinson, Specimens of Hausa Literature, Cambridge, 
1896; Tremearne 1913: 70-2; Paden 1965; A. Mischlich, 'Religiose und weltliche Gesange der 
Mohammedaner aus dem Sudan', Afrika [Berlin] 2. 3. On similar Fulani instances in various 
parts of West Africa see e.g. Ba 1950; Pfeffer 1939; Monod 1948; E. F. Sayers, 'In Praise of 
the Faith of Futa and a Warning to Unbelievers— a Fula Poem with Introductory Note and 
Translation', Sierra Leone Studies o.s. 13, 1928; Lacroix 1965; Mohamadou 1963. On Songhai, 
B. Hama, 'L'esprit de la culture sonrhai'e', Presence afr. 14/15, 1957: 153. 


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168 Oral Literature in Africa 

through writing; it is not always clear how they began. An example is 
'The song of Bagauda'. This is a long Hausa poem said to be of great 
antiquity which runs to over twenty pages in the Hausa text. It includes 
a prelude (doxology and eulogy of Mohammed), a list of Hausa kings, 
and a long homily on the frailty of this world, expressed in a form typical 
of Islamic tradition with eschatological material from the Koran and the 
conventional stock of images; it closes with rulings on points of Muslim 
law. The whole is set in a free form of a classical Arabic metre and rhyme 
system (qasida form, wafir metre and rhyme throughout in zva). In spite 
of its length and form, this primarily religious poem seems to have 
flourished in both oral and literate forms. Hiskett, its recent editor, was 
able to collect a text from an old Hausa woman and reports that it is also 
sung by beggars. 8 

The same sort of phenomenon appears in Swahili in East Africa. Here 
too there is a strong written tradition which includes religious poetry. It 
can be traced directly to Arabic models. 9 This literary tradition goes back 
something like three hundred years and was a medium of expression 
which had its origin in the Muslim religion, although it was later used for 
secular verse. Both Islam and the Arabian models used for its expression 
may have had their origin outside the area: but the tradition came to 
be a national Swahili one, influenced and moulded by the genius of the 
Swahili language and culture. 'Verse composition after the Arabian pattern 
involved the question of pride in Swahili origins; it revealed knowledge of 
Arabian life and of Islam, a sure guarantee for the highest prestige among 
the Swahili people' (Harries 1962: 2). 

There are many different types of Swahili verse, but they can roughly 
be divided into the shorter lyric forms and the much longer didactic or 
narrative poems called tenzi {sing, utenzi; northern dialect tendi/utendi). The 
first form is closely related to oral traditions and appears sometimes in 
written, sometimes in oral form: it is 'not easy to classify definitely into 
"literary" and "popular" sections' (Werner 1917-20: 119). The tenzi, however, 

M. Hiskett, 'The "Song of Bagaudu": a Hausa King List and Homily in Verse', BSOAS 
27-8, 1964-5. 

A great deal of work has been done on this written literature. There is a general discussion 
with examples (original and translation) in the recent books by Harries (Harries 1962, 
supplemented by the bibliographic material in the review by J. Knappert in Afr. Studies 23, 
1964), and Knappert (1967b), as well as in earlier writings by Biittner, Velten, Werner, Allen, 
Dammann, and others (see bibliography under 'Swahili' in IAI Bibliography (A) by R. Jones, 
East Africa, 1960; and M. van Spanndonck, Practical and Systematical Swahili Bibliography, 
Leiden, 1965). 


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7. Religious Poetry 169 

depend much more on a written form; sometimes indeed they are said to 
be written as much for the eye as for the ear, and there seems to be less of 
an overlap between the written and oral forms of such Swahili poems than 
with the corresponding forms in Hausa. Nevertheless, though in the first 
instance the tenzi were written, they were designed for public performance; 
they were chanted aloud, sometimes by the composer himself, to musical 
accompaniment (Harries 1962: 24). And it seems clear that the existence of 
such a wide-spread and valued tradition must have had a profound effect 
on the whole Swahili literary tradition, oral as well as written. 10 

Swahili tenzi 11 are long religious poems containing either homiletic 
material or a narrative treatment of the deeds of Muslim heroes, including 
the deeds of war. More recently other secular material has also been included, 
but the main emphasis is still strongly Islamic. The poems are marked by 
deep religious inspiration, and the conventional opening, whatever the 
subject, is a praise of God and his prophet. The narratives are based, more 
or less closely, on Arabian traditions; however, the models do not seem to 
have been followed exactly, and in the case of tenzi based on the general 
prose accounts of events relating to the Prophet, the poets were free to treat 
this material as they wished. To mention just a few, such narrative tenzi 
include accounts of the deeds of Job, Miqdad, or Joseph, a dispute between 
Moses and Mohammed as to which is the greater, the 'epic of Heraclios' 
depicting the legend of a Holy War against the Byzantine Christians, and a 
popular version of the death of the Prophet. 

A typical example of the way in which a religious tone pervades the 
narrative can be seen in the Utendi wa Ras al- Ghuli, the story of Ras al-ghul. 
This deals with the adventures of the Prophet's Companions when they 
were avenging a Muslim woman whose children had been killed by a pagan 
king. The events are set in Arabia and the poem opens in characteristic 
form with praise of God and a description of the copyist's materials and 
methods. It continues: 

Take down the beginning of the story / One day, we understand, / there 
appeared the Beloved / Our Prophet the Bringer of News. 

At his coming forth, the Trusted One / went to the mosque / there inside the 
building / at the time of dawn. 

10 See, for instance, the modem Swahili ballad published in P. Lienhardt 1968, which, 
though purely oral, is in the traditional utenzi form. In some areas, e.g. Pemba, the 
connection with oral tradition seems to have been even closer (see Whiteley 1958). 

11 This section is mainly based on Harries 1962, Ch. 3, which contains a convenient synthesis 
and collection of much of the earlier work on this form of verse. See also Knappert 1966, 1967. 


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170 Oral Literature in Africa 

After he had arrived / He called for Bilali / He called for him to call the 

people to prayer quickly / for the time had come. 
And Bilali called them to prayer / sending out the cry / and the people 

heard / from the elders to the children. 
And the Companions met together / all of them together / both Ali and 

Othman / as well as Shaikh Umar. 
The leading Helpers / they were all present / with no one absent / and so 

Abu Bakr was there also. 
When all had arrived / the Prophet came forward / to lead the people in 

prayer / with a high voice. 
After they had prayed / giving thanks to the Glorious God / the Companions 

with Shaikh Ali / and the congregation of the Helpers. 
They were inside the mosque / studying the holy books / when almost at 

once / they discerned a cloud of dust. 
The Companions watched / and saw people coming / all riding camels / the 

number of them being ten. 
They were coming in a hurry / and on arriving at the mosque / they 

proceeded to dismount / watering the camels. 
And the leader of the party / a woman of distinction / giving greeting / and 

asking for the Prophet. 
She spoke straightway / saying, Where is the Prophet / the Beloved of the 

Glorious God? / Show me without delay. 
She said, Where is the Prophet / the beloved of the Beloved / our Prophet 

Muhammad / who sets at nought the infidels? 
Show me the Exalted One / the Prophet of the Bountiful God / I have come 

an oppressed person / that I may give him my news (Harries 1962: 29-31) 

The woman gives a long account of her suffering, then the miraculous 
events of the story are recounted, ending with the victory of the Prophet 
and his friends over the pagans. 

Popular epics of this kind were intended for public performance. They 
'were meant to amuse and elevate the uneducated masses who liked to see 
their religious, social, and political ideals realized in the history of former 
times', and 'occasionally it is still possible to find a utendi being intoned in 
public on the veranda of a house. Public recital ensured that at least the gist 
of the story would reach the ears of the ordinary man' (Harries 1962: 27, 24). 

The shorter homiletic tenzi were intended for a more limited audience 
and were often directed at younger members of the community as 
instruction in religious and social behaviour. The most famous of these is 
the seventy-nine-line Inkishafi, 'Revelation', a poem composed in the early 
nineteenth century on the theme that all men must die, the glory of this 
world passes away, and we await judgement in the next world. The poet 


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7. Religious Poetry 171 

meditates on the transitoriness of life and the danger of eternal damnation, 
and looks into his own heart— for the title really implies the revealing or 
uncovering of his own heart and soul. Another well-known didactic poem 
is Utendi iva Mivana Kupona, a mother's instructions to her daughter about 
her wifely duties. Even such household instructions are permeated with 
religious sentiments: 

Attend to me my daughter / unworthy as I am of God's award / Heed my last 

instructions / for it may be that you will apply yourself to them. 
Sickness has seized upon me / and has now lasted a whole year / 1 have not 

had a chance to utter / a word of good advice to you. 
Come forward and set yourself / with ink and paper / I have matters at 

heart / that I have longed to tell you. 
Now that you are near / Write, In the Name of God / name of Him and the 

Beloved / together with his Companions. 
When you have thus acknowledged / the Name of God the Mighty / then let 

us pray for His bounty / as God shall deem fit for us. 
A son of Adam is nought / and the world is not ours / nor is there any man / 

who shall endure for ever. 
My child, accept my advice / together with my blessing / God will protect 

you / that He may avert you from evil. 
Take this amulet that I give you / fasten it carefully upon a cord / regard it as 

a precious thing / that you may cherish it with care. 
Let me string for you a necklace / of pearls and red coral / let me adorn you 

as a beautiful woman / when it shines upon your neck. 
For love let me give you a clasp / a beautiful one without flaw / wear it upon 

your neck / and you shall perceive benefits. 
While you shall hold to my counsel / my child, you shall escape trouble / you 

shall pass through this world / and cross over to the next. 

(Harries 1962: 73-5) 

After this affectionate opening, the mother goes on to instruct her 
daughter as to her religious duties, her duties to her husband, household 
management, and kindness to the poor, followed by her own confession of 
faith as a Muslim. It concludes: 

Read, all you women / so that you may understand / that you may bear no 

blame / in the presence of God the Highest. 
Read, you who are sprouts of wheat / obey your menfolk / so that you may 

not be touched by the sorrows / of the after-life and of this. 
She who obeys her husband / hers are honour and charm / wherever she 

shall go / her fame is published abroad. 
She who composed this poem / is one lonely and sorrowful / and the greatest 

of her sins / Lord, Thou wilt her forgive. (Harries 1962: 85-7) 


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172 Oral Literature in Africa 

In form the tenzi are modelled on Arabic poetry. Each line is divided into 
four parts (sometimes written as separate lines), of which the first three 
rhyme and the fourth acts as a terminal rhyme throughout the poem. This 
terminal rhyme is often a double vowel, and though these do not always 
rhyme to our ears (they may be -iya, -eya, -ua, -owa, etc.), added length 
can be given to both of the vowels in actual reading or recitation. There is 
a conventional dialect in which tenzi are written, but, unlike the involved 
syntax of lyrics, the narrative is expressed in a straightforward manner. The 
stock themes and form — in particular the opening prayers and invocations 
to God, the great emphasis on the frailty of this world, exhortations to 
religious duty, and the torment of the wicked — are strikingly similar to the 
corresponding Hausa ones from the other side of the continent. 

This tenzi form has by no means lost its popularity in East Africa. It 
frequently appears in the vernacular press, now mainly written in the 
Roman as distinct from the traditional Arabic Swahili script. It is now also 
sometimes employed as a vehicle for Christian rather than Islamic doctrine, 
as in the utenzi reported by Knappert in which passages from the Gospel 
have been cast in the traditional epic style, 12 or for political expression 
as in the utenzi about Nyerere's life, recited in his presence following his 
inauguration as President in 1965. 13 As has frequently been pointed out, 
this form of verse, with its conventional prosody and themes, Tends itself 
to indefinite longueurs' (Werner 1928: 355) in the hands of a poetaster; but, 
treated by a master, it can result in magnificent epic poetry. 

Though the extent and antiquity of the Swahili tradition of religious 
verse is probably unparalleled in subsaharan Africa, it is proper to remind 
ourselves that the influence of Islam, unlike that of Christianity, has a 
long history in several parts of the continent. The literary tradition that 
accompanied it, to a greater or lesser degree in different areas, may be 
particularly evident and well documented among such peoples as the 
Swahili, Somali, Hausa, Fulani, or Mandingo and have resulted there in 
many well-known compositions in the local languages. But it may well 
have had an even wider literary impact to an extent that still remains to be 

12 J. Knappert, 'The First Christian Utenzi: a New Development in Swahili Literature, 
Afr. u, Ubersee 47, 1964. 

13 Z. Himid, 'Utenzi wa Muheshimiwa Rais wa Tanzania 28.9.65' [Epic of the Hon. the 
President of Tanzania, 28 Sept. 1965, Swahili 36, 1966. 


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7. Religious Poetry 173 


Apart from Islamic verse the most common type of religious poetry in Africa 
seems to be the hymn. A common feature of this form is that the religious 
content consists of invocation or supplication rather than narrative, and 
is sometimes closely allied to panegyric. 14 The detailed subject-matter 
and context, however, vary greatly with the differing religious beliefs and 
institutions of each people. 

It is among certain West African peoples that hymns are developed 
in their most specialized form. This is in keeping with the elaborate 
pantheon of divinities recognized by such peoples as the Yoruba, Fon, 
or Akan. Among the Yoruba, for instance, each divinity has not only his 
own specialist priests and customary forms of worship, but also his own 
symbolic associations, his iconography, and his literature, including both 
myths and hymns. 

Thus, for example, the Yoruba divinity Eshu-Elegba (the messenger 
deity and 'god of mischief) has his own cult of worshippers with their 
special rituals and organization. He is represented sculpturally in shrines 
according to special conventions which also appear in the insignia worn 
by his worshippers and in bas-relief representations, with the recurrent 
motifs of a club, whistle, high head-dress, cowries, and the colour black. 
The praises of Eshu chanted by his particular worshippers and priests 
bring out his paradoxical nature: he is shown as big and small, youngest 
and oldest, black and white, 'one who defies boundaries and limitations 
with gay abandon'. 15 His hymns (or praises) are expressed as a series of 

When he is angry he hits a stone until it bleeds. When he is angry he sits on 

the skin of an ant. When he is angry he weeps tears of blood. 
Eshu, confuser of men. 
The owners of twenty slaves is sacrificing, 
So that Eshu may not confuse him. 
The owner of thirty 'iwofa' [pawns] is sacrificing, 
So that Eshu may not confuse him. 
Eshu confused the newly married wife. 

14 In some cases (e.g. Yoruba oriki) the same term and conventions are used for praises of 
both deities and humans; in others (e.g. South African Bantu) praise poetry is confined 
to humans. 

15 J. Westcott, 'The Sculpture and Myths of Eshu-Elegba, the Yoruba Trickster', Africa 32, 1962. 


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174: Oral Literature in Africa 

When she stole the cowries from the sacred shrine of Oya 16 

She said she had not realized 

That taking two hundred cowries was stealing. 

Eshu confused the head of the queen — 

And she started to go naked. 

Then Eshu beat her to make her cry. 

Eshu, do not confuse me! 

Eshu, do not confuse the load on my head . . } 7 

Eshu slept in the house — 

But the house was too small for him. 

Eshu slept on the verandah — 

But the verandah was too small for him. 

Eshu slept in a nut— 

At last he could stretch himself. 

Eshu walked through the groundnut farm. The tuft of his hair was just 
visible. If it had not been for his huge size, He would not have been visible 
at all. 

Having thrown a stone yesterday— he kills a bird today. Lying down, his 

head hits the roof. 
Standing up he cannot look into the cooking pot. 
Eshu turns right into wrong, wrong into right. (Gbadamosi and Beier 1959: 15) ^k 

The obscure and poetic nature of these Yoruba hymns, concerned more 
with praise and allusive imagery than with intercession, can be further 
illustrated by another example taken from Verger's great collection of 
Yoruba hymns (Verger 1957). This is the hymn to Shango, the powerful and 
violent god of thunder, praised in the poem under many different titles. 
Only about half of the full text is given: 

Logun Leko ne me donne pas tort, que ma parole soit correcte 

Lakuo peut braler toutes les terres 

Le tonnerre a brise la maison de Are pere du chasseur Mokin 

La mort a amene l'elephant dans la ville . . . 

Mon Seigneur qui d'une seule pierre de foudre a tue six personnes 

Logun Leko qui fait beaucoup de bruit sans rien f aire 

Tres sale et tres tetu, gifle le proprietaire de la maison et empoigne l'amala 

II le coupe en morceaux, il fait de la tete un remede 

II prend l'enfant tetu et l'attache comme un mouton 

Ceint d'un tablier d'argent il entre dans la ville 

Sur la tete d'un ose il monte et part 

II se bat comme la tornade dans la ville, 

16 Goddess of river Niger, wife of Shango. 

17 Metaphor for 'relatives'. 


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7. Religious Poetry 175 

II monte en spirale sur un arbre Odan et part 

Lorsqu'il a rue quelqu'un il accroche sa jambe dans un arbre arere 

Amugbekun rit sans ouvrir la bouche 

Baba Oje Ibadan penetre dans la brousse et poursuit le danger 

Mon seigneur qui coupe une tete comme un regime de noix de palme 

Contrariete venue comme le signe Oyeku sur le plateau de Ifa 

Mon seigneur qui fait lutter le mari et la femme ensemble . . . 

Mon coeur n'est pas perdu, j'irai avec lui Shango 

Roi qui prend celui-ci et qui prend celui-la 

II est difficile d'etre en sa compagnie 

II dit que pour le proprietaire tout est fini 

L'enfant mange tout ce qu'il trouve 

II rit lorsqu'il va chez Oshun 

II reste longtemps dans la maison d'Oya 

Ni Ogun ni Shango ne revelent aucun secret 

Revenant puissant pour lequel nous roulons le mortier 

Leopard qui tue le mouton et se lave avec le sang 

II lorgne brutalement vers le menteur 

Le Sorcier Lakin Sokun chauffe la maison avec son souffle (?) 

Mon seigneur qui fait se sauver celui qui a raison 

Le menteur se sauve avant meme qu'il ne lui parle 

Leopard pere de Timi ^k 

II attend ce qui nous a fait peur 

II les brise par centaines 

II verse tous les gens dans la forge 

Mon seigneur, la forge devient le lit de tous les grands 

II se bat sans avoir tort 

II detruit la maison d'un autre et y met la sienne derriere 

II a battu deux cents personnes dans la foret et brise la foret autour avec son 

II y a beaucoup de debris au-dessus 

Orisa qui ayant deja tue Efun Doyin, veut encore se battre 
Lagun se ferme comme une calebasse d'huile 
II monte sur le mouton sans tomber 
Resistant comme la racine de tipe 
II monte sur le kapokier et le fait tomber deracine 

II est sombre, calmement comme l'enfant d'une femme qui prepare l'indigo. 
Seulement quelqu'un qui ne touche jamais terre 
II n'y a pas d'os qui ressemble aux dents 
Balogun Ede tue les gens 

Asusu Masa est amer comme la feuille d'egbesi 
II rit et ne crie pas 

II n'y a pas de danger pour moi en presence de Olukoso 
II va en dansant gbangu de ibadan jusqu'e Oyo . . . 
Pere de honneur (nom de Shango) 


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176 Oral Literature in Africa 

Proprietaire talisman (nom de Shango) 

II grille les intestins et les mange 

Meme dans les jours de detresse il y a des recoltes et Shango mange de la 

II tue le pere, l'a mis sur l'enf ant 
Enleve son penis et le met sur son pantalon 
Sa poitrine est bmlante comme la brousse du pied du palmier 
Entortille comme la jambe de l'animal semi 
II transforme le pilier d'une maison et le fait devenir immense comme 

Si Olokun est immense Shango egalement est immense 
II fait bruler le fils de Olumon (Egba) dans le feu de Aragunan 
II ecrase le talisman de mon chef de maison 

II prend aupres de ceux qui ne possedent pas ce que nous lui souhaitons 
II est tres sale comme Eshu et se tient, une jambe tendue et l'autre pliee 
Elephant qui marche avec dignite 
Regardez l'elephant lever aisement une patte guerriere, leopard pere de 

Timi . . . 
II menace le male, il menace la femelle, il menace l'homme important, il 

menace le riche 
L'indiscret qui veut decouvrir le secret de Olukoso ne restera pas au monde 
Celui qui respecte le secret, mon seigneur lui facilitera les choses 
II prend quelqu'un, il tue quelqu'un 

II danse avec precision en regardant vers le ciel a la derobee 
Aki Rabata danse avec les gens 
II saute hors de la maison si elle brule 
Si la maison brule il sort et rit apres . . . 
Si la pluie tombe il dit qu'il n'y a pas de feu 
Si l'auto arrive que les gens accroupis se levent de la route 
S'eloigner du serpent dont on n'a pas coupe la tete 
Le feu brule celui qu'il connait 
La pluie mouillant l'ortie, eteint son feu (Verger 1957: 342-8; 354-5) 

The hymns of some other African peoples are very different from these 
elaborate praises of Yoruba gods. Praise may be replaced by an emphasis 
on prayer, supplication, or consideration of the relations of man to god(s). 
This seems to be true, for instance, of many of the hymns of the Dinka, 
a people of the Nilotic group famous for its special type of monotheism, 
emphasis on Spirit, and, at the same time, general lack of any developed 
priesthood. We can see the reflective nature of the first of two short hymns 
quoted by Lienhardt and, in the second, the tone of complaint and demand 
characteristic of Dinka hymns. In each 'Divinity' is approached directly 
and simply, and the poetic effectiveness is created partly through the use of 
vivid visual images from the everyday world: 


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7. Religious Poetry 177 

Great deng is near, and some say 'far' 


The creator is near, and some say 'he has not reached us' Do you not hear, 
O Divinity? 

The black bull of the rain has been released from the moon's byre. 18 Do you 
not hear, O Divinity? 19 

1 have been left in misery indeed, Divinity, help me! 
Will you refuse [to help] the ants of this country? 20 

When we have the clan-divinity deng 

Our home is called 'Lies and Confusion'. 21 

What is all this for, O Divinity? Alas, I am your child. (Lienhardt, 1961: 45) 22 

When we come to the hymns of the Bushmen of southern Africa we find the 
aspect of supplication taken still further. There are no priests among the 
Bushmen and, for certain northern groups at least, invocations to their gods are 
said to take place spontaneously when the thought comes to them. 23 Consonant 
with the continual difficulties and scarcities of Bushman life, the topics of their 
invocations are the day-to-day material needs with which they are preoccupied: 

You have created me and given me power to walk about and hunt. Why do 
you lead me in the wrong way so that I find no animals? 24 

In these examples, often characterized by a mixture of mild imprecation 
and pleading, the prayer is more marked than the praise or worship often 
associated with 'hymns'. The same emphasis on praying and the demand for 
daily needs also comes out in the prayers of some southern Bushman groups, 
where there is a conventional form into which such prayers are thrown. Each 
poem, or each of its verses, opens with an invocation to the moon, sun, or stars: 
'Ho Moon lying there' or 'O Star coming there', and so on. This is followed 
by a prayer for life (that is, a prayer for food), made the more intense by the 
repetition and parallelism of the expression: 

Ho Moon lying there, 

Let me early tomorrow see an ostrich, 

18 The image is of the clouding over of the penumbra of the moon. 

19 G. Lienhardt, Divinity and Experience, the Religion of the Dinka, Oxford, 1961: 38. 

20 In religious contexts the Dinka often speak of themselves as 'ants' in the sight of Divinity, 
thus looking at themselves as they may be supposed to appear in the eyes of Divinity. 

21 Meaning that everything is going wrong, since people deceive and distrust each other. 

22 This is only part of a complete hymn, but most Dinka hymns seem in fact to be short, a 
few lines only. 

23 L. Marshall in J. L. Gibbs (ed.), Peoples of Africa, New York, 1965: 276. 

24 Ibid. 


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178 Oral Literature in Africa 

As the ostrich sits on the eggs, 

Let me whisk out the yolk 

With a gemsbok tail hair (brush) 

Which sits together upon a little stick 

Upon which the gemsbok tail sits. (Bleek 1929: 306) 

A similar pattern can be seen in the famous 'Prayer to the young moon': 

Young Moon! 

Hail, Young Moon! 

Hail, hail, 

Young Moon! 

Young Moon! speak to me! 

Hail, hail, 

Young Moon! Tell me of something. 

Hail, hail! 

When the sun rises, 

Thou must speak to me, 

That I may eat something. 

Thou must speak to me about a little thing, 

That I may eat. 

Hail, hail, 

Young Moon! (Bleek and Lloyd 1911: 415) {& 

The same emphasis on intercession is evident in some of the songs associated 
with rain ceremonies in the central African area. Here, however, the musical 
and dramatic aspects are more pronounced than in Bushman prayers. As 
with many antiphonal songs, the refrain is assigned to a chorus while the 
verses are extemporized by a soloist according to a conventional pattern— a 
marked contrast to the lengthy and specialist hymns to West African deities. 
This can be illustrated from a Ndau rain song from Portuguese East Africa, 
a song in which the antiphonal form is expressively used to indicate the 
personal plight of both singer and chorus: 

Thunder-of-the-East, we're dying, 

E we iye yo we 
And the race will die this season! 

£ we iye yo we 
O ye Highland folk, we perish! 

£ we iye yo we 
O ye Sea-Side folk, we're dying! 

£ we iye yo we 
Ye Mamboni folk, we perish! 

£ we iye yo we 


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7. Religious Poetry 179 

Ye Mashangna folk we're dying: 
£ we iye yo we 

Ye Nyalinge folk, we perish! 
£ we iye yo we 

Thunder-of-the-East, we're dying! 

£ we iye yo we. (Curtis 1920: 30) 

It is sometimes supposed that one of the most common forms of conventional 
utterance in non- literate society is the spell or incantation— a verse or formula 
believed to be magically effective in manipulating people or things. In fact the 
evidence from Africa does not seem to suggest that this is often a particularly 
significant form of literature. It is true that magical incantations of a kind 
do occur— perhaps particularly in the areas most influenced by Islam — and 
in some societies are distinguished by a special term from other religious 
poetry such as hymns or prayers. 25 But even in these cases this form does not 
seem to be developed as a lengthy and specialized form in its own right as it 
is, for instance, in Melanesia. 26 Even among a people like the Azande who are 
so famous for their emphasis on magic and on witchcraft, verse incantations 
or spells do not seem to be highly developed: invocation to the poison oracle, 
for instance, appears to be in a prose form which, though marked by its own 
conventionally elliptical phraseology, is apparently not a set word-perfect 
formula. And the songs sung at Zande 'witch-doctors' seances', where we 
might expect to find such incantations, are in fact short and relatively simple 
(like, for instance, 'Brush away tears oo eee, we will sit down with her and 
brush away tears'); 27 they deal with a variety of social events unrelated to 
magic, just as do songs sung at dances or beer-parties, and they are performed 
in the normal antiphonal form with leader and chorus. 28 

A further general point is that even where there is some element of what 
might be termed 'magic', this does not necessarily lead to a definite type of 
'magical incantation'. Just as the previously assumed distinction between 
'magic' and 'religion' is now questioned by many students of African beliefs 

25 e.g. Songhai zumu (hymns) are distinguished in terminology, intention, and form from 
gyindize (magical formulas) (J. Rouch, La Religion et la magie songhay, Paris, 1960: 83). 

26 Or in some literate societies. One of the largest collections of African 'magical' texts 
is in fact taken from the written tradition of Ethiopia (D. Lifchitz, Textes ethiopiens 
magico-religieux, TMIE 38, 1940). 

27 E. E. Evans-Pritchard, Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic among the Azande, Oxford, 1937: 182. 
The songs have more latent meaning than may appear on the surface. 

28 Ibid.: 180-2. The use of prose for prayers and magical spells and the lack of a rigid word-perfect 
pattern also occur among the Ibo (Green 1948: 841). Some comments on prose prayers, curses, 
etc., can be found in Ch. 16. Divination literature is discussed later in the present chapter. 


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180 Oral Literature in Africa 

and practices, so too it emerges that it is often not feasible to differentiate a 
clear-cut category of 'magical' incantations, spells, and charms as distinct from 
'religious' poetry involving prayer, praise, invocation, or ritual announcement. 
The following two examples may help to illustrate this point. Both 
are characterized by the kind of rhythmic and expressive diction, further 
brought out by the use of repetition, that in fact appears in many forms 
of literature but is often thought to be particularly typical of 'magical' 
utterances. The first is taken from the Songhai, a people, long in contact 
with Islam, who do distinguish between religious praises and magical 
formula. It is a spell used in hunting magic— and yet even here there is 
mention of God and of his messenger and prophet, Ndebi: 

Je parle avec Ndebi. 

Ndebi n'a qu'a parler avec Dieu 

Les hommes d'avant ont donne a Saley. 

Saley a donne a son petit frere. 

Ndebi, laisse-moi passer par le trou avec mes captifs et mon poison. 

Ndebi, ouvre le trou et referme le trou. 

Ndebi, ferme le trou aux Zin. 

Ndebi, ferme le trou au lion mediant. 

Ndebi, ferme le trou a la hyene mechante. 

Ndebi, ferme le trou aux antilopes mechantes. 

Ndebi, ferme le trou aux etres mediants. 

Ndebi, ferme le trou aux langues mechantes. 

Ndebi, ferme le trou aux freres mediants. 29 

In the second example, from the Kongo, the ancestors are being thanked 
for their help in curing a patient, and are being ritually shown the animals 
brought for a feast in their honour; these animals are to be in good condition 
and not attacked by hostile forces: 

May the leopard coming from the forest Have his teeth on edge for these animals . 

May the weasel coming from the forest 

Be unable to take these fowls. 

May the witch who twists his belongings, 

Fail to fascinate our goats. 

May the thief on the look-out 

Sprain his feet in his course. 

Let all these animals prosper 

And multiply, 

Then the feast will be beautiful. 

29 Rouch, op. cit.: 275. Ndebi also appears in many of the other texts cited in idem., Ch. 7 
('La magie'). 


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7. Religious Poetry 181 

So far, this might seem to accord with the picture of a typical 'magic 
incantation'; but the speaker continues, addressing the ancestors in whose 
honour the whole is uttered: 

I have held out my hands to you (in prayer), 

And he who holds out his hands dies not. I have shown you the animals of the feast, 

And I have brought you no other presents, Except palmwine, 

That you may favour the procreation of (human) wealth. 

And here are the kola nuts I brought for you. 30 

I am not intending to suggest that references to personal supernatural 
beings (such as deities or ancestors) always appear in such utterances, but 
that they appear frequently enough to make a general distinction between 
'magical charms' and hymns or prayers a difficult one to draw. As a result it 
is not easy to find many specialized instances of purely 'magical' verses. It 
seems that the popular picture of all-important and word-perfect magical 
formulas, intended to manipulate impersonally through the force of the 
words alone, is one that does not often have a real counterpart in any 
developed or specialized form in subsaharan Africa. 

Another common supposition is that with the advent of Christianity 
and its associated literate traditions, the importance of oral religious 
utterances will necessarily diminish. The contrary, however, would seem to 
be true. It is precisely in the religious sphere that there has been a marked 
development of oral forms in lyrics, prayers, and testimonies, each with its 
own conventions and techniques. This goes hand in hand with the great 
proliferation of native Christian churches and other separatist religious 
movements that is so well known a feature of contemporary Africa. 

Sometimes these utterances are subsequently reduced to writing or 
even make an early appearance in written form: but even in these cases 
their spread and significance among their largely non-literate patrons 
is often primarily oral. Instances could be drawn from Mau Mau hymns, 
from the 'very Zulu' modern hymns of the Church of Nazareth, and 
from testimonies in various separatist churches in South Africa, which, 
even when 'spontaneous', have their own conventions and appear as 
rhythmic and liturgical chants. 31 One example that has been described 

30 J. Van Wing, 'Bakongo Incantations and Prayers', ]RA1 60, 1930: 418-19. 

31 L. S. B. Leakey, Defeating Mau Mau, London, 1954, Chs. 4-5; B. G. M. Sundkler, Bantu 
Prophets in South Africa, London, 2nd ed., 1961: 192; Tracey 1948b: 48ff. See also e.g. 
R. Kauffman, 'Hymns of the Wabvuwi', Afr. Music 2. 3, 1960; B. Kingslake in ibid. 1. 
4, 1957: 18 (improvised church chants by Yoruba women); E. G. Parrinder, 'Music in 
West African Churches', ibid. 1. 3, 1956; P. Jans, 'Essai de musique religieuse pour 


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182 Oral Literature in Africa 

is the lyric in the Fante Methodist Church in Ghana, 32 and I will discuss 
this briefly here. 

The Methodist Church in Ghana is Western in organization, worship, 
and ethos. Nevertheless, certain aspects have been developed which 
appeal particularly to non-literate members, above all the Fante lyric which 
appears so often in services. There are two main types. In one, words and 
music are more or less fixed, though there may be minor variations by the 
congregations who actually sing them. The second type falls into the form 
of an individual recitative accompanied by a relatively fixed chorus. It is 
this second form that gives scope to the highest degree of improvisation. 
Though the lyrics sometimes become stereotyped in context, a competent 
singer can improvise. He may wind his theme, for instance, round some 
reference that has struck him in the sermon just delivered or in a prayer or 
reading. Sometimes he will even break into the sermon with a lyric which 
is then taken up by others present. In a way typical of much oral literature, 
the rest of the congregation also play their part, for they sing the responses 
in chorus and are quick to anticipate what is required. Not all members of 
a church are themselves competent lyric singers. 

It is common for there to be one or two individuals in the congregation, 
usually from among the older men and women, who are recognized as song 
leaders. A good singer must possess two qualities: an extensive repertoire 
of the more familiar lyrics, and a capacity to improvise successfully within 
the canons of accepted musical and verbal styles. He thus requires poetic 
and musical ability as well as considerable verbal skill. Such lyrics are 
important devotionally to the non-literate Fante Methodists and play a 
significant part in their religious services. Williamson considers them as 
'simple and sincere expressions of religious belief and experience' and 
contrasts this with the attitude to Western hymns which, even in translation, 
are stilted and un-Fante (Williamson 1958: 127). 

The background to these modern lyrics lies not in the specialist hymns 
to deities but rather in certain lyric forms of the oral Akan tradition, 
particularly those associated with the asafo military companies, with 

indigenes dans le vicariat apostolique de Coquilhatville', Aequatoria 19, 1956. These 
developments tend to be a feature of the separatist sects rather than of the orthodox 
mission churches, and also, it is frequently said, arise from the way in which European 
hymn-tunes in mission churches violate indigenous tonal patterns, thus stultifying 
further developments. 
32 S. G. Williamson, 'The Lyric in the Fante Methodist Church', Africa 28, 1958; see also 
A. A. Mensah, 'The Akan Church Lyric', Internal. Rev. of Missions, 49, 1960. 


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7. Religious Poetry 183 

the female mmobome and asrayere songs, and perhaps with the adenkum 
(calabash) music associated with older rituals. They also recall the practice 
in traditional Fante stories of the narration (like the sermon) being 
interrupted by a song which acts both as diversion and as commentary. 
As with the Methodist lyrics, such songs appear either in regular metrical 
form or as recitative with response from the audience. The lyrical aspect of 
the church songs comes out particularly in the frequent use of apostrophe 
and affirmation linked with the idea of a personal proclamation or recital. 
Most of the lyrics are brief and fairly stereotyped in content, as in the 
following example of one of the relatively fixed forms. The image of a shower 
of blessing suggested in the second line of the Fante text is a traditional one: 

Open the windows of heaven, Give us thy blessing! Open the windows of 

heaven, Give us thy blessing! 
Our Father, Onyame [God]! 
Sweet Father of us, the Church membership. 
Open the windows of heaven, 
Give us thy blessing. (Williamson 1958: 129) 

Although such lyrics are short and simple and tend to be despised by literate 
church members, they nevertheless represent a vigorous oral tradition, and 
one that has parallels elsewhere. It is one, furthermore, that is now gaining 
wider currency in a series of voluntary associations outside the church as 
well as through the increasing emphasis on such lyrics in broadcasts by 
Radio Ghana. Altogether, this kind of development is one likely to prove a 
fruitful field in the future study of oral literature. 


Mantic poetry represents a different type of religious literature. It can 
take several forms. One consists of the utterances of mediums believed by 
themselves and/or others to be possessed by some spirit. When oracular 
utterances take the from of poetry, they have their own conventions. 
However, although possibly widespread in Africa, there have been few 
detailed studies of them, 33 perhaps because they tend to be obscurely 
expressed in oracular language (sometimes even in a special language 

33 Though see A. V. King, 'A Boorii Liturgy from Katsina', Afr. Language Studies 7, 1966 and 
Supplement, 1967; G. Balandier, 'Femmes "possedees" et leurs chants', Presence afr, 5, 
1948; and work in progress hy F. Topan on spirit (pepo) songs and their role in a spirit 
mediumship cult in Mombasa, Kenya. 


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184 Oral Literature in Africa 

of their own) or in a fragmentary or repetitive form. On the other hand 
the poems that accompany certain divining procedures are of a more 
systematized and specialized type and, accordingly have been more 
accessible to collectors. This type of mantic poetry tends to be highly 
conventional, with little emphasis on the individual creativity of the 
performer; a common pattern is for it to be the preserve of specialist 
diviners who have undergone training and/or special initiation to master 
the techniques of divination and its interpretation, as well as to develop the 
ability to recite the requisite poetry. And, finally, there are combinations of 
these two types, when both possession and more conventional forms of 
divination are involved. 34 

Two examples of the more specialized divination literature will be 
illustrated here. The examples come from opposite ends of the continent: 
the praises associated with divining bones among the Sotho of southern 
Africa, and the highly elaborate Ifa corpus of literature from West Africa. 

(i) Praises of divining bones among the Sotho 35 

In Sotho divination an integral part is played by the ritual chants or praises 
(lithoko; direto) associated both with the bones used in divination and with 
each of the special combinations formed by these bones when thrown by 
a diviner. Mastery of these oracular poems depends on long training and 
initiation, and the diviner must know a large number of them before he can 
practise his art. 

The general pattern of divination and its associated literature seems 
to be constant throughout the Sotho area, though the actual poems differ 
according to the locality. The divining apparatus itself consists of a set of 
bones from various animals including cattle. As the diviner begins his 
session, he handles the bones and praises them, saying, for instance: 

You my white ones, children of my parents, Whom I drank from mothers' 
breasts! And you many coloured cattle Whom I knew when still on mother's 
back, From whose hoofs these chips were cut; Hoofs of cattle black and red 
and yellow. (Eiselen, 1932: 11) 

34 I am not proposing to discuss here the specialized invocations sometimes made to 
oracles before the results of the query are declared. Further remarks on prose prayers, etc., 
are to be found in Ch. 16. 

35 Based on W. M. Eiselen, 'The Art of Divination as Practised by the Bamesemola', Bantu 
Studies 6, 1932; F. Laydevant, 'The Praises of the Divining Bones among the Basotho', 
ibid. 7, 1933; A. W. Hoernle in I. Schapera (ed.), The Bantu-speaking Tribes of South Afiica, 
London, 1937. 


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7. Religious Poetry 185 

Each of the four principal bones in the set (four to twenty in all) has special 
significance as well as its own name and praises. After praising his bones 
the diviner makes a throw and notices how the four principal bones have 
fallen; the first two have four sides each and can thus fall in any of four ways; 
the second pair are counted as having only two each. Each of these many 
combinations has a special 'praise' associated with it which the diviner then 
recites. This consists of a title, a poem which is interpreted as alluding to the 
questioner's problem, and a direct or indirect suggestion as to the remedy 
that should be employed. After the recitation, the questioner is led to agree 
that the verse recited fits his case (Laydevant, 1933: 344). 

The enigmatic and allusive nature of these oracular poems can be 
illustrated from the praise entitled 'The swimming (fall) of the sunbird', a 
poem which illustrates a particular 'fall' of the four principal bones. It can be 
seen how the symbolic expression is susceptible of several interpretations 
and is not concerned with direct literal prediction: 

Sunbird, secret and daring. 

When you take a bit of straw, 

And say you imitate the hammerkop. 

The hammerkop nobody can imitate. 

It is the bird of those who take a new garment in the deep waters. 

It is taking bits of straw one by one.' 

It is building above the pools. 

The little sunbird should not fall. 

It falls and makes phususu in the pools. 

It is the patient one sitting at the drift. 

The sins are passing and you see them. 

The reed of the river is mocking at the reed of the plain. 

It says: When the grass is burning. 

The reed of the plain is laughing at the reed of the river, 

It says: When the rivers get full. (Laydevant 1933: 349-50) 

One interpretation of the verse is that people are trying to kill the questioner 
by lightning because of his wealth and good luck; they accuse him of 
imitating a chief and say he must fall. To protect himself he is told to get 
a feather of a hammerkop, sunbird, or one of the yellow sparrows living 
in the reeds, 'a feather of the lightning', which will guard him. Further 
allusions are suggested to a Sotho listener, not all of them directly connected 
with the diviner's interpretation: the hammerkop is not only commonly 
associated with lightning, but is also an accepted symbol of power, while 
the reeds symbolize the common people quarrelling together because of 
jealousy; the image of the sunbirds falling into the water is an allusion to 
the circumcision rites of Sotho girls (Laydevant 1933: 351). 


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186 Oral Literature in Africa 

Jealousy and discord are very common themes. In the fall named 'The 
Fame of the Lamp' the diviner alludes, through the image of an elephant, 
to a chief who is spreading enmity between his sons while even the nation 
takes part in the quarrel. It is suggested that the people must be treated 
with medicine from the horn: 

O female elephant, 

O elephant, I have become blind, 

elephant, I have entered secretly. 

The path of the enemy was red; 

There was blood, there was disorder. 

Shake the ear, you running elephant. 

That the others should grow and remember your name. (Laydevant 1933: 369-70). 

The next verse briefly and effectively pictures the hatred between a man's 
co-wives. One of them feels she is persecuted on account of the others, and 
she is given medicine to help her by the diviner: 

Child of the tortoise, I am burning, I suffered in my heart, 

On account of my smallness of being a tortoise. (Laydevant 1933: 371) 

Again, 'The Famous Masibo (a plant) of the Swimming': 

Swim on the deep waters, lie upon them. 

They have no hippo and no little things. 

They have no beast of prey biting whilst it moves, 

And coiling itself in a corner. 

Only the little hippos are swimming. 

The big ones do not swim any more. 

They rip open and throw out their backs. 

Why are the crocodiles quarrelling in the water? 

They are quarrelling on account of an old crocodile, 

Of many talks in the water. 

Which says: I do not bite, I only play; 

1 shall bite the year after next. 

When the mimosa and the willow tree are growing. (Laydevant 1933: 361) 

The crocodile and hippopotamus symbolize the important people who 
are spreading misunderstanding between their children. The remedy 
prescribed is to use certain plants, among them the willow tree and the 

Other topics introduced are: problems about going on a journey; 
hunting; illness; signs of good or bad luck. But the obscure and symbolic 
character of the poems is noticeable in every context, and there is a tendency 
for both poems and interpretations to be concerned less with definite 


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7. Religious Poetry 187 

predictions than with commenting allusively on some facet of personal 
relationships. Thus illness is usually dealt with not by predicting a cure 
or its opposite, but by suggesting the possible enmities and witchcraft that 
may have given rise to it, alluding to this in poetic and figurative terms. 
The poems themselves play a central part in the whole divination process, 
for it is through the imagery of the poetry that the sufferer can recognize 
his own case. In spite of the conventional nature of the poems there is wide 
scope for personal interpretations of them in a particular case, a possibility 
closely connected with their obscure and allusive nature. The flexible 
application of this oracular literature is added to by the fact that though 
the poems as a whole seem to be orally transmitted and memorized (with 
but slight variations) by the diviners, each diviner is also free, if he is able, 
to compose new praises for the various falls, and 'is only too glad to show 
his artistic ability in that kind of poetry' (Laydevant, 1933: 341). Mantic 
poetry among the Sotho is developed for its own sake as an artistic form of 
poetic expression governed by its own conventions as well as for the light 
it throws on people's ills and hatreds. 

(ii) Odulfa 36 

The final example of religious poetry is the oracular literature associated 
with divination among the Yoruba of Southern Nigeria. Although this 
includes prose as well as poetry, it is worth considering here both for its 
intrinsic interest and for the way it illustrates the complexity there can be 
in African religious literature. 

Before discussing Ifa literature, it is necessary to describe something 
of the mechanism and beliefs of the Yoruba divination system. 37 Ifa, the 
Yoruba oracle, is one among the pantheon of Yoruba gods, and as such 
appears in many (and sometimes contradictory) stories and myths, often 

36 The main sources used are G. Parrinder, West African Religion, London, 1961, Ch. 13; 
R. C. Abraham, Dictionary of Modern Yoruba, London, 1958 (under Ifa); Bascom 1941, 
1943; Abimbola 1964, 1965; Gbadamosi and Beier 1959: 25ff.; R. Prince, Ifa, Ibadan, 
1964; and Morton-Williams et al. 1966. Full bibliographies can be found in Maupoil 
1961 (who discusses in detail the very similar Fa divination system in Dahomey) and 
Bascom 1961. 

37 Similar or identical systems are found among the Fon of Dahomey and Ewe of Togo as 
well as some other Nigerian peoples. Its elaborateness has led some to speculate about 
possible external origins, but it is now generally agreed that Ifa has a long history in 
West Africa and that, for recent centuries at any rate, the centre of distribution has been 
Yoruba country in Southern Nigeria. 


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188 Oral Literature in Africa 

under his alternative title of Orunmila. In one myth, for instance, the gods 
are depicted as hungry because they received few sacrifices. The trickster 
god, Eshu, then showed Ifa the system of divination so that as a result men 
could be helped through the diviners' skill, while, at the same time, the 
gods would benefit through the sacrifices and thank-offerings that human 
beings would be commanded to make by their diviners. Ifa has a special 
position among the gods. He is both the deity who acts as the intermediary 
between men and gods, and also in a sense is the impersonal principle of 
divination by which mankind has access to what is otherwise hidden from 
them. Ifa thus, as god and as oracle, plays a central part in Yoruba religious 
and everyday life: 

Ifa is the master of today; 

Ifa is the master of tomorrow; 

Ifa is the master of the day after tomorrow; 

To Ifa belongs all the four days 

Created by Orisa into this world. (Abimbola 1965: 4) 

The Ifa divination system is a highly elaborate one. It rests on a series 
of mathematical permutations, the principle of which must be grasped 
in order to understand the way in which certain pieces of literature are 
associated with each of these. The permutations of figures (odu) are based 
on two columns of four units each, and the different combinations which 
these eight units may form between them. The total number of figures is 256, 
each with its own name and associated literature. It is only after obtaining 
one of the figures to form the basis of his utterance that the diviner can 
proceed to the divination itself. 

There are two main ways of obtaining the figures. The first, less elaborate 
mechanism consists of a chain or cord of eight half-seeds (often split mango 
stones), divided into two portions of four half-seeds each. When this is 
thrown down by the diviner, the resultant figure makes two columns of 
four units each, the exact combination depending on whether the seeds 
have fallen convex- or concave-side-up. The other way of obtaining a 
figure, a longer method used in important consultations, is with a set of 
sixteen palm-nuts and a small board. The diviner throws or passes the nuts 
rapidly from one hand to the other. If either one or two nuts are left in the 
right hand, the throw is valid and he makes a corresponding mark on his 
board: a double mark for one nut, a single for two. The process is repeated 
eight times and eight marks are thus made in the dust on the tray; these 
start from the bottom right-hand side and are laid out in the form of two 
parallel columns of four sets of marks each. This gives the same result as the 


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7. Religious Poetry 189 

eight-seed chain, the double mark corresponding to a seed convex-side- 
a single mark to the concave. 


1. ogbe 

2. oyeku 

3. iwori 

4. odi 

















5. irosun 

6. owara 

7. obara 

8. okonron 

















9. ogunda 

10. osa 

11. ika 

12. oturopon 

















13. otuiva 

14. irete 

15. ose 

16. ofun 

















Table showing the names and structure of the columns which form the 
basis of Ifa figures (odu) 3S (from Parrinder 1961: 141; Abraham 1958: 276) 

The order of the odu figures also has some significance in the full 

divination process. The one here is the most commonly found, but there 

are regional variations, (see Bascom 1961) 

38 The order of the odu figures also has some significance in the full divination process. 
That given here is the order most commonly found, but there are regional variations (see 
Bascom 1961). 

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190 Oral Literature in Africa 

It is the figure thus produced that determines the diviner's utterances to 
his client. As can be seen from the table, each column of four can fall in any 
of sixteen permutations. When the two columns are considered together, 
as they are by Ifa diviners, the total number of different figures that can 
be produced is 16 x 16 = 256. Of this number, 16 are the leading figures or 
odu proper: these are the combinations of two identical columns. Thus the 
double figure based on the column called oyeku and known as oyeku meji 
appears as 



















while the double figure iwori meji, based on the hvori column, is 

The remaining 240 figures, those in which the two columns differ, are 
considered secondary, and, though often referred to by the same term as 
for the principal figures (odu), are strictly omo odu, 'children of odu'. An 
example of one of these secondary odu would be that name iwori gbara, 
a combination of the obara and iwori columns (the right-hand one being 
named first in the Yoruba title): 



Once the diviner has thrown his figure, the divination proper can begin. 
Each figure has several pieces of literature (ese) specifically connected with 
it, and it is in the words associated with the figure thrown that the answer 
to the client's query must be found. There is no definite number of pieces 
for each odu, but a diviner would not normally begin to practise unless he 
knew at least four for each (thus involving mastery of at least one thousand 
in all); good diviners are said to know about eight of the pieces for each 
of the 256 figures and many more for the important figures (Bascom 1941: 
43, 50) It is commonly believed that the number of pieces for each figure is 
ideally sixteen, in keeping with the mathematical symmetry of the system 
as a whole. But there seems to be no such fixed correspondence in actual 


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7. Religious Poetry 191 

practice, and the number and to some extent the content of the verses vary 
with individual capacity and with the locality. 

The practical point of these pieces is to guide the inquirer by suggesting 
a sacrifice or type of worship, by indicating his likely fortune, and by 
referring to a precedent from which he can judge his own case. Since 
more than one piece can be quoted for whatever figure is thrown, these 
are recited at random one after the other, and it is for the client, not the 
diviner, to select which applies to his particular case. The consultation thus 
proceeds through poetic allusion and analogy rather than through straight 
answers to specific questions— and it is this quality which leads to its 
development as a corpus of literature and gives depth and meaning to the 
bare injunctions with which the divination may open. 

The pieces associated with each figure fall into a general pattern. Each 
usually opens with a mention of the sacrifices and other actions the client 
must carry out to have success. This first part is relatively prosaic; it may 
run, for instance: 

This person is intending to marry a new wife. He is warned to make sacrifice 
to Osun so that the wife may be prosperous. He is warned never to flog the 
wife if he wants peace in his home. He should make sacrifice with fifteen 
cowries and a big hen. Ifa says that if he observes all these warnings, success 
will be his (Abimbola 1965: 15). 

This is followed by the main part of the piece, expressed in poetic language 
and sometimes chanted all through. This part is concerned with setting out 
a precedent in terms of a previous divination. First often comes the name 
of the priest of Ifa who is said to have made the prophecy in the precedent 
cited, and the name of the client(s) for whom he was divining— these may 
be people, deities, animals, plants, inanimate objects. Thus the client may 
be told that on the previous occasion 

The-big-and-terrible-Rainbow 39 

Cast Ifa for the Iroko tree 

Of the town of Igbo. (Abimbola 1965: 16) 

Another diviner is referred to as 'Oropa Niga; to fight and stir up dust 
like Buffalo; parched dust on the top of a rock' (Bascom 1943: 128) or 
as T-have-no-time-to-waste' (Abimbola 1965: 15). It will be seen that this 
section often involves elaborate and poetic names which may have symbolic 
meaning. Second in this main part of the piece there usually comes a poem 

39 Praise name of the diviner. 


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192 Oral Literature in Africa 

(sometimes elaborated in a prose story) which describes the occasion of the 
previous divination. As will emerge from the examples given below, the 
subject-matter of this part is most varied. There are variations in length: 
sometimes there is only a fragmentary allusion (perhaps not much more 
than a poetic proverb), while at others there is a long and dramatic narration. 
Finally, the client is told the result of the previous divination described 
and thus, indirectly, what he can expect himself. Very often the conclusion 
pointedly shows that on the previous occasion the one who performed the 
due sacrifices prospered, while the negligent met disaster. Sometimes the 
whole recitation is then closed by a chorus which is chanted in unison by 
the diviner, his pupils, and the client. 

Within this general pattern there is plenty of scope for variation in 
the actual pieces recited. They differ greatly in length. Abimbola reports 
several that can be recited for more than half an hour, while others take 
only one or two minutes (Abimbola 1965: 13). The plots and the people 
involved in them are also of many different kinds. They include just about 
all the topics that can be met in narrative stories throughout the continent. 
This great variety is hardly surprising when one considers that even a 
mediocre diviner must know at least a thousand of these precedents 
with their accompanying verses and stories. They can be about animals, 
gods, legendary humans, natural phenomena like rivers or hills, plants, 
and even inanimate things like metals or shells, and they may take the 
form of a simple story about a man going on a journey, an account of the 
founding of a town, a philosophical discussion of the merits and demerits 
of monogamy— 'there is ... no limit to the subject-matter which ese If a may 
deal with' (Abimbola 1965: 14). The outcome often takes an aetiological 
form with the present nature of some plant or animal traced to its imaginary 
actions in the story— in particular its obedience or disobedience to the 
injunctions laid on it by the oracle; its characteristics in the world today 
thus provide a kind of imaginative validation of the truth of the story. 

The sort of plots involved can be seen from a few brief synopses: 40 

1. It is because Maizebeer, Bamboo-wine, and Palm-wine refused 
to sacrifice that a person who has been intoxicated recovers 
from his stupefied condition after sleeping. 

2. Lizard was told to make a sacrifice, part of which was to enable 
him to marry, and part of which was to ensure that his wife 

40 Quoted from the convenient summaries in Bascom 1941: 46, 48, 45. 


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7. Religious Poetry 193 

would continue to love him. Lizard sacrificed only the first part, 
and after he had married, his wife left him. It is because he is 
looking for his wife in the tree-tops that he raises himself on his 
forelegs and peers from side to side. 

3. When Brass, Lead, and Iron were told to sacrifice, Iron said that 
the diviners were just lying, that events had been predestined 
by Olorun [God], and that their course could not be altered by 
sacrificing. Only Brass and Lead sacrificed, and because of this 
they can be buried for many years without rotting, while Iron 
rusts away in a short time. 

4. When the 165 kinds of trees in the forest were told to sacrifice, 
only three did as they were told. The others replied that they did 
not have enough money. When Eshu [a god] reported this to the 
gods, a storm was sent to the forest. It pulled up the larger trees 
by the roots, or broke them down; but the atari bush and the 
ariran and esun grasses, who had sacrificed, simply bent down 
while the storm passed over them. 

5. Orunmila [another name for the god If a] was told to include 
a knife as a part of a sacrifice, lest he be taken as a thief on a 
journey he was considering. He postponed the sacrifice, and 
when he stole some kola-nuts on the way, he escaped capture 
only after having been cut on the palm of his hand. The owner 
of the nuts asked the king to gather everyone together so that 
he might identify the thief by this cut. Frightened, Orunmila 
went to the diviners, who doubled the sacrifice. While 
everyone slept Eshu took one of the knives and cut the palms 
of everyone, including the unborn children. (It is because of 
this that people have lines on their palms.) When the owner of 
the nuts demanded that Orunmila open his hand, Orunmila 
showed that everyone, including the king himself, had the 
same scars; and because he had been falsely accused, he was 
given a great deal of wealth. 

6. Stout Foreigner was told to sacrifice so as to find good fortune; 
he sacrificed, and everything to which he turned his hand 
became good. 

The actual poems and prose narratives which give full expression to 
these plots are of course much more lengthy and elaborate than the bald 
summaries just quoted. The last one, for instance, seems to be the piece 


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194 Oral Literature in Africa 

quoted in full in another source, and is associated with the fourth of 
the sixteen principal odus. The allusive verse is, as often, explained and 
expanded in the straightforward prose narrative which follows it. 

Ifa sees the prospect of greatness for this person in a strange land. He 
should make sacrifice with four pigeons, a good garment of his, and a shoe. 

I arrived in good time, 

I travelled in good time, 

I am the only man who travels in time of fortune 

When valuable objects of wealth are being deposited I entered unannounced 

like the heir to the wealth 
I am not the heir to the wealth, I am only good at travelling in time of fortune. 
(These people) divined for the fat stranger 41 
Who would enter unannounced 
On the day the property of the dead king of Benin was being shared. 42 

The fat stranger was going to Benin in search of a suitable place to practise 
his Ifa. He was told that he would prosper in Benin but he was warned to 
make sacrifice. After making the sacrifice he made for Benin. He entered 
Benin just as the King of that city died. He thought that it would not 
speak well of him— a renowned diviner (babaidwo) — ii he did not say his 
condolences to the people of Benin. But he did not know that whenever the 
properties of a dead king were being shared out in Benin a good portion 
usually goes to the fortunate stranger who entered just in time. On arriving 
at the place where the properties were being shared, the fat stranger was 
given a good portion of the property. 

After gathering the materials given him, he made for his native land. He 
started to sing in praise of his diviners (who divined for him before he went 
to Benin) while in turn his diviners praised Ifa. He made a party for his 
neighbours. There the aran i3 was beaten, and it gave its pleasant melodies. 
Unconsciously, as he stretched his legs, he started to dance. On opening his 
mouth the song of the diviners was already on his lips. 

He said it happened, just as his Ifa priests said it would. 

I arrive in good time, 
I travelled in good time, 

I am the only man who travels in time of fortune 

When valuable objects of wealth are being deposited I entered unannounced 
like the heir to the wealth 

41 Godogbo— fat or bold, and at the same time tall and stately. 

42 Benin has the reputation of great wealth among the Yoruba — 'Benin the place of money'. 

43 Drum connected with Ifa. 


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7. Religious Poetry 195 

I am not the heir to the wealth, I am only good at travelling in time of fortune. 

(These people) divined for the fat stranger 

Who would enter unannounced 

On the day the property of the dead king of Benin was being shared. 

Who will help us reconstruct this city? 

Only the fat stranger will help us reconstruct this city. (Abimbola 1964: 7-8) 

Additional examples can give a further idea of the poetic quality and variety 
of much of this Ifa literature. It will be remembered that each is only one of 
several pieces belonging to a particular throw and that the allusive poems 
are often accompanied by explanatory prose narrative. To a Yoruba listener 
their obscurity is also lessened by the fact that they conventionally deal 
with common and recognizable themes: the consequences of sacrifice (often 
to be seen in the present characteristics of things); praise of a particular Ifa 
figure or a particular god (often suggesting that he should be worshipped); 
and indication of the client's present fortune or misfortune. 

In the first, the questioner is allusively told to worship Obatala: 

The sky is immense, but grows no grass. 

That is what the oracle said to Obatala, 

To whom the great God gave the reins of the world. 

God of the Igbo, I stretch out my hands. 

Give the reins of the world to me. (Gbadamosi and Beier 1959: 26) 

The next extract from a long Ifa poem is about Ifa under his title of Ela, and 
is remarkable for its effective use of tones. Whenever there is a pause the 
phrase ends with a low tone, and the whole poem concludes with the word 
Ela, which 'fittingly comes in on a low monotone, giving the whole extract 
a sense of gravity' (Lasebikan 1956: 46). 

He made the 'Odundun' King of leaves, And the Tete its deputy; He made 

the Sea King of waters, And the lagoon its deputy; 
Still Ela was accused of the mismanagement of the world, 
Whereupon, Ela grew angry, 
And climbed to heaven with a rope. 
Come back to receive our homage, 
O, Ela! (Gbadamosi and Beier 1959: 46-7) 

In the next two examples the listener can, if he decides they apply to him, 
draw inferences about his future fortune. The first, if told to a woman, 
suggests she may bear a child; the second, in narrative form, alludes to death: 

I am blessing two, not one. 
This was prophesied to the sea lily 

Which reaches down into the mud, the origin of creation. The time of 
creation has come. (Gbadamosi and Beier 1959: 26) 


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196 Oral Literature in Africa 

This is the oracle of a hunter 

Who went hunting in the forest of Onikorogbo. 

They asked him to sacrifice, 

So that he might not meet his death. 

They asked him to sacrifice eggs, 

All the eggs in his house. 

But he refused to sacrifice. 

He came into the forest, 

But found no animals to shoot. 

After he had wandered about for a long time 

He met Death. 

For a while they were hunting together. 

At last they found two eggs. 

Death said to the hunter: 

You may take them home. 

The hunter proposed to divide them, 

But Death refused. 

The hunter went home lonely. 

Soon after that famine came. 

The hunter cooked the eggs 

And ate them with his children. ^k 

Then Death arrived and said: 

I have come for my share. 

There is famine in heaven. 

And we have nothing to eat. 

The hunter said: Alas, 

We have already eaten the eggs. 

Then Death killed the hunter and his children. (Gbadamosi and Beier 1959: 28) 

Particular divination figures are also mentioned in the Ifa poems. One 
praises the figure eji ogbe which is the first and senior figure in all systems 
of Ifa divination: 

The might of all rivers in the world is not to be compared with that of the 

sea; the dignity of rivers which rise on a hill is not as that of the lagoon. 
There is no Ifa that can be compared with Eji-ogbe; 
To command is the privilege of a commander; 
Eji-ogbe, you are the king of them all. 

I asked for honours from the Lagoon, for he is greater than the River. 
I received them, but I was not satisfied. I asked them at the hands of Olokun 

Jeniade, the God of the sea and father of all rivers, but still I was not 

Who does not know that only the gifts of Olorun, the God of Heaven, are 

sufficient till the day of one's death? 44 

44 J. D. Clarke, 'Ifa Divination', ]RAI 69, 1939: 248. 


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7. Religious Poetry 197 

The poem about the figure iwori wotura also alludes to good fortune: 

Iwori Wotura 

Anybody who meets beauty and does not look at it will soon be poor. 

The red feathers are the pride of the parrot. 

The young leaves are the pride of the palm tree. Iwori Wotura. The white 

flowers are the pride of the leaves. 
The well swept verandah is the pride of the landlord. Iwori Wotura. 
The straight tree is the pride of the forest. 
The fast deer is the pride of the bush. Iwori Wotura. 
The rainbow is the pride of heaven. 
The beautiful woman is the pride of her husband. Iwori Wotura. The 

children are the pride of the mother. 
The moon and the stars are the pride of the sun. Iwori Wotura. Ifa says: beauty 

and all sorts of good fortunes arrive. (Gbadamosi and Beier 1959: 30) 

The final example expresses once more the constant theme that one must 
sacrifice to obtain success: 

The lord of the Forest and the lord of the Savannah, 
Wanted to seduce Beloved, the wife of Fire. 
They were asked to sacrifice broomsticks, a hen and Ifa leaves. 
But the lord of the Savannah refused. He said: 
'And why should I, chief of the Savannah bring sacrifice 
Merely because I seduced a woman? 

Have I not an army of poisonous yams and thorny shrubs 
All ready to protect me?' — But the lord of the Forest sacrificed. 
The day came when Beloved, Fire's wife, had gone to the house of Savannah 
The Fire ran burning to the lord of the Savannah and cried: Beloved, Beloved, 

And he burned the poisonous yams and the thorny shrubs, and all the 

Savannah was burned. 
But when Fire returned to the forest, they sprinkled Ifa leaves on it and it 

died. (Gbadamosi and Beier 1959: 27) 

Those who memorize and recite such poems are members of a highly 
trained and respected profession. The Ifa diviners {babalawo, lit. 'father of 
mysteries') spend several years learning the literature for their profession. 
The minimum seems to be three years: the first is often spent learning the 
names and structure of the odu, the second and third learning some of 
the literature of each as well as the actual practice of divination and its 
rituals (Parrinder 1961: 145). But sometimes seven or ten years are spent 
in apprenticeship to a qualified diviner, and the general opinion is, not 
surprisingly, that an Ifa diviner continues to learn as long as he lives. In 
some areas at least it is also a strictly organized profession with a head 
diviner (olori-aivo) in each quarter of a town or village and several grades 


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198 Oral Literature in Africa 

of diviners under him (Clarke 1939: 250; Abraham, 1958: 277). It is clear 
also that both they and others regard their skill seriously. Though it is 
presumably possible in principle for dishonest individuals to exploit the 
system, there seems to be no question of the system as a whole being a 
piece of calculated trickery. As will be clear even from the few examples 
cited, however, the Yoruba themselves admit the existence of individual 
scepticism on the subject. Nevertheless, the general belief is not only that 
the diviners themselves are genuine but that what they say represents the 
accumulated wisdom of generations, a belief strengthened by the fact that 
diviners themselves approach their own problems through Ifa consultation. 

That Ifa divination and its literature should be regarded as seriously as 
this is not surprising when one considers the nature of the consultation. 
Only one point need be repeated in this connection. 45 For each figure that 
is thrown the diviner does not repeat just one poem (and associated story), 
but at least four or so, either in outline or in full. Not only are these mostly 
expressed in allusive and poetic language, but the diviner himself does 
not know in advance the specific problem the questioner has in mind, 
and it is left to the client to make his choice among the several verses 
recited; there is always likely to be at least one which will appear relevant 
to him, particularly in view of the fact that what is described is not an 
exact prediction for the future but a poetically described precedent. 'The 
diviner's role is to recite and explain, the supplicant's role is to discern the 
precise canto in which Ifa is speaking to him, and Ifa may speak in veiled 
ways' (Prince 1964: 9). 

In view of this literary and thus in a sense unfalsifiable nature of Ifa, 
the respect given to diviners and the continued popularity of Ifa divining 
among Christians and Muslims as well as pagans is not any cause for 

Ifa, then, covers a whole corpus of literature consisting not only of 
straightforward injunctions to sacrifice, of meaningful and elaborate names 
and (sometimes) prose stories, but also of a body of allusive and complex 
poetry. This literature cannot be said to form a definitive and fixed canon. 
Not only does the number of pieces associated with each figure differ from 
diviner to diviner, but there are also regional differences in the pieces 
themselves (Bascom 1943: 130) as well as in the formal order of the figures. 
Each piece is separate and complete in itself, and may contradict other 

45 For further factors involved in the continuing faith in the validity of Ifa divination 
procedures see Bascom 1941. 


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7. Religious Poetry 199 

comparable pieces. The literature itself is fluid in the sense that there may be 
changes in the pieces, with new material merged and added by individual 
diviners which is then accepted as authoritative by their followers. But 
in spite of this lack of fixity and comprehensiveness, it remains true that 
the Ifa utterances form part of a conventional and vast scheme, hugely 
conceived, one that is known and recited by serious and highly qualified 
specialists but which has not yet been systematically collected in written 
form in anything approaching the scale of its conception. 46 


One of the main points to emerge from this brief account of African 
religious poetry is its variety. Just as the theory and practice of religions 
vary in different parts of Africa, so too does religious poetry. Similarly, even 
in one society there may not only be religious variations with corresponding 
effects on literature, but different poetic genres, many of them connected 
with religion, are likely to be recognized. Furthermore simplistic 
assumptions which attribute cultural unity of various kinds to African 
religion or to religious expression turn out to be highly questionable. Thus 
the picture of African religious expression dominated by magical spells 
and incantations can be seen to have little evidence to support it. Certain 
other generalizations also seem uncertain. It is asserted, for instance, in 
one recent collection of religious texts that when authors of these pieces 
do exist they are always anonymous, and that such texts possess no literary 
character for their users who are interested only in their religious functions 
(Dieterlen 1965: 17-18). There are in fact far too many variations to sum 
up the matter so simply. Sometimes there are official priests and religious 
specialists, people who tend to be authoritative and conservative and lay 
great stress on the idea of preserving the ancient text. In other cases there is 
little interest in authority and more scope for improvisation and originality. 
Moreover, the literary appreciation of religious pieces varies with culture, 

46 The largest published collection is in Maupoli 1961 (of the more or less identical Fa 
system of Dahomey), but even he does not attempt to cover all the 256 odu. Abimbola 
has collected much of the literature pertaining to the sixteen principal odu, but writes 
that it will probably take thirty or forty years to record the pieces associated with the 
remaining odu which are less well known— 'for if it takes about two sessions to work 
on 16 Odus, it will take 32 years to work on the remaining 256!' Abimbola 1964: 12. A 
number of recordings have also been made more recently by the Institute of African 
Studies, University of Ibadan, but not yet fully transcribed. 


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200 Oral Literature in Africa 

context, genre, and even individual— there is certainly no a priori reason to 
suppose that it cannot coexist with religious sentiments or situations. 

Another misleading generalization is the idea of the 'intense 
religiousness' supposed to characterize the peoples of Africa and their 
religious texts (Dieterlen 1965: 20). On the basis of their oral literature this 
seems doubtful. In any one culture religious poetry is not necessarily the 
most developed or valued— one need only mention the instance of the 
Southern Bantu among whom panegyric of human beings (not gods) is 
the most specialized and prized. Ifa divination literature might perhaps 
be cited as a counter-example, being the most largely conceived scheme of 
Yoruba literature. But, quite apart from the question of whether this means 
it is necessarily the most complex or valued type, one could hardly say, in 
view of much of its content and context, that it really offered definite proof 
that the Yoruba were therefore a highly 'religious' people in any obvious 
sense. In any case the religious significance of a poetic product can only be 
assessed with a detailed knowledge of its social and literary background, 
for only then can one grasp its meaning (or meanings) for composer, reciter, 
and listeners. 

It is true that a few general remarks can be made about African 
religious poetry: the prevalence of the hymn in various forms; the relative 
lack of significance (apart from Islamic verse) of didactic and narrative 
religious poetry; and the spread of recent forms influenced by Christianity. 
But apart from such obvious generalizations few general points can be 
established. Indeed perhaps they are not worth searching for at this stage. 
What is now needed is much more detailed collection and analysis of 
religious poetry (including recent Christian-inspired forms). The whole 
subject deserves far more study than it has as yet received. In particular 
it needs to be analysed in terms of literature (and not just social function) 
and presented not as isolated snippets but in relation to its proponents, 
listeners, and social context. 


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8. Special Purpose Poetry — 
War, Hunting, and Work 

Military poetry: Nguni; Akan. Hunting poetry: Yoruba ijala; Ambo hunters' songs. 
Work songs. 

Some subjects are of particular significance in African poetry. Besides 
the subjects already elaborated there are others that could be discussed. 
There is poetry associated, for example, with secret societies, 1 various 
types of associations, 2 initiation, 3 begging (e.g. Fletcher 1912: 62-3 (Hausa)), 
masquerades (e.g. Gbadamosi and Beier 1959: 38-49 (Yoruba); Egudu 
1967: 9 (Ibo)), and there are also the very common songs to do with cattle 
and cattle herding (e.g. Ba 1950: 175-9 (Fulani); Kagame 1947 (Rwanda); 
Beidelman 1965 (Baraguyu); also Ch. 9). But war and hunting are topics of 
particular interest for many African societies, and have frequently given 
rise to specialized poetry; while songs to accompany work are so common 
throughout Africa as to demand treatment by their sheer quantity. 

In treating these genres we are faced with one difficulty. Some of 
them, at first sight at least, so closely tied to the actual occasions on which 
they are performed— whether war, hunting, or work— that they seem to 
approach a fixed formulaic utterance with little room for variation, and 
change and innovation are thus at a minimum. How far then can they be 
treated in the same way as other, more innovatory, genres of oral literature? 
We are reminded here of the difficulty of making a clear-cut distinction 

1 e.g. the songs of various Limba societies. 

2 e.g. the songs of the various associations in Dahomey, which extol their own worth and 
the aid they give to members (Herskovits 1938, ii: 331). 

3 e.g. Lambert 1965 (Kenya); Driberg 1932: 14-15, 29-30 (Didinga and Lango); Schulien 
1965: 59ff. (Cameroons Fulani); Alnaes 1967; Dieterlen 1965, part ii; Krige 1968; Von 
Sicard 1943 (AA 18.645). 


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202 Oral Literature in Africa 

between literature and non-literature in oral cultures. (Ch. 1) One needs to 
remember, however, that this distinction is clearly only a matter of degree; 
some of the examples mentioned here are evidently as much 'literature' as 
examples in earlier chapters. Even if we make a rough division between 
innovatory and non-innovatory genres, with hunting and work songs in 
the second category, lyric or topical songs as pre-eminently in the first, we 
still find that even within these categories there can be distinctions on these 
same lines. Among hunting poems, for instance, Yoruba ijala poetry clearly 
provides much scope for variation and composition, whereas Ambo songs, 
it seems, do not. The same might be said of work songs, depending on the 
amount of variation by the leading soloist (see Ch. 9). A second point is that 
our attitude to such examples must depend not least on the local evaluation 
of these pieces. Too often this is something we are not told about, so that 
in the meantime all we can do is to present the pieces and hope that more 
research will elucidate their background. Finally, some of these poems are 
not nearly so closely tied to their occasions as they might seem at first sight: 
detachment and insight, so crucial for literary expression, are also involved. 
All in all there is no real solution to the problem— except to point to it 
and to suggest further research. What we particularly need to know about 
are both local attitudes to these forms and the amount of innovation and 
variation that actually take place. 


Poetry about both hunting and war seems to involve the same ideas of 
romance and glory. Sometimes the same genre of poetry is even used to 
deal with both, like the Galla gheraera or boasts, universal among warriors 
and hunters (Chadwicks iii, 1940: 548), or the Adangme tegble poetry used 
both for war and to honour a man who had killed a leopard with a spear 
(Puplampu 1951: 141). But even where there is no such direct association, 
the two subjects seem to be related. Both involve action that is out of the 
run of ordinary everyday pursuits; in both there is danger, triumph, or 
heroism; and boasting, challenge, and specialized ability (sometimes 
supplemented by magic) are frequent elements in both. 

The sorts of occasions on which war songs were sung are not very 
thoroughly documented— I suppose one of the conditions for the collection 
and study of such songs was in fact the ending of widespread warring— but 
it is clear that they were by no means confined to the field of battle. 


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8. Special Purpose Poetry— War, Hunting, and Work 203 

The excitement and emotion associated with military exploits are often 
expressed in poetry beforehand. In this way both poet and audience can 
be stirred up to declare war or to prepare for battle. So we have the Shona: 

Solo. King be-not-persuaded-by-other-people-not-to-fight-your- 

enemies ho! ho! 
Chorus. So long as the regiment agree, ho! ho! (Taylor 1926: 39) 

Delafosse, when an administrator in West Africa, was similarly addressed 
by an Agni chief and his warriors who came to offer him their help against a 
rebel, urging on him and on themselves the attractions and urgency of war: 

Donne-moi de la poudre et des fusils: je partirai demain. 

Je veux leur couper la tete: je partirai demain. 

lis ont des femmes qui sont jolies: je partirai demain. 

On dit qu'ils ont de l'or: je partirai demain. 

Aujourd'hui il faut que je fasse des balles: je partirai demain. 

Aujourd'hui il faut que j'offre un sacrifice: je partirai demain. 

Je veux leur couper la tete: je partirai demain. 

Donne-moi de la poudre et des fusils: je partirai demain. 

(Delafosse 1900: 180-1) 

Such war songs in fact are sometimes more an expression and reinforcement 
of the militant strength of a group than a direct incitement to the fight or 
a part of the battle itself. Several of the military poems recorded for the 
warlike Nilotic peoples seem to be of this kind. They involve glorification, 
the expression of high morale, and, very often, refer to cattle — among the 
Nilotes there is a very common association between war and cattle raiding: 

Great bull with testicles has been killed 

It is Divinity 

The dark clouds and the morning rain blow up 

My mother abuk, Divinity my father, help me 

My father garang, help me Divinity my father 

If we sleep abroad, 4 the white cow of my father 

Will bring us cows 

Avoid the spear, my age-set Mayom, avoid the spear 

An affair of the great spear (a great fight) 

O my club! 

The spear-haft in the man's back quivers 

deng kur is a powerful divinity. 

If we sleep abroad, it brings cows 

White cow of my father, I did not start the fight 

i.e. as warriors on a cattle raid. 


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204 Oral Literature in Africa 

The bulls meet head to head! 

Cow which gave peace to my father 

Cow bringing cows 

Make peace as the Kongor tribe did with the Agar 

Last year's fighting is ended Last year's fighting thus is ended 

(Lienhardt 1961: 88-89; cf. also Tescaroli 1961, Ch. 3 (Shilluk)) 

The same associations with cattle come out in another Dinka war song 
where the 'feast' or sacrifice implies war and hostility to enemies: 

Though the tribe holds a feast against me 
I shall not fear, 

Though all the people hold a feast against me 
I shall not fear, 

my tribe, I am a bull with sharpened horns, 

1 am a maddened bull .... (Lienhardt 1961: 282) 

Some war poetry, then, is rather the expression of the general values relating to 
war than an immediate part of an actual military expedition. But other poems 
involve more direct participation, at least in the preliminaries and aftermath of 
war. The Ngoni of Malawi, for instance, had two main branches of war songs: 
first imigubo, those specifically intended for singing before going out to fight; 
and secondly imihubo, sung on their return. The first type was still being sung 
in the 1930s, danced in full war dress with shields and spears, and performed 
in the Paramount Chief's village, the traditional place of mobilization. The 
women too join in the dance, and the tempo works up and up to inspire the 
men with the lust for battle. Many of these songs seem brief, but much of 
the tune was sung to meaningless though rousing sounds— inyo ho, oya ye 
yayo and so on— and they were added to by the varied accompaniment of 
stamping feet and the clashing of spears and shields. (Read 1937: 29) Similar 
war songs from Malawi are mentioned by Kidney. When sung they are 
accompanied by small drums, by the brandishing of spears, and by bodily 
movements signifying courage and defiance, which stir up warlike feelings: 

Fight now! Come and fight now! 
Slay them! We'll brandish spears! 
Straight forth doth speed your arrow. 
Tremble! Yes! They tremble! 

When we draw near, 

And far they'll flee as we approach them! 

Sharpen keen your arrows! 
Brave heads upraised and shouting 
Loudly our defiance. 


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8. Special Purpose Poetry— War, Hunting, and Work 205 

All they who oppose us. 

Quickly our spears 
Shall pierce their breasts. They will be scattered. (Kidney 1921: 26) 

It is common for songs celebrating military success to become highly 
developed after the return home. For example, the Kamba of Kenya make 
the return into a triumphal procession. Special honour is ceremonially 
given to a Kamba man who has earned the high title of mutiaetumo, i.e. one 
who has personally killed a Masai warrior. Such a man leads his triumphant 
band round the villages. When they approach a village, they strike up their 
songs of victory. The hero is praised but his comrades' help is not forgotten: 

You wonder: he who sings the song of victory, who is he? He is mutiaetumo X 
(here follows his real name), who has fought with the men of cattle [Masai], 
but if we had not helped each other, he should not have come out of it 
successfully, aaaaahl (Lindblom 1920: 199) 

The women play their part by greeting the warriors with shrill cries— Mi, 
lili, lili, lili!— their normal way of expressing joy and delight, thus adding 
to the display and to the men's sense of heroism. 

The use of war poetry in the actual face of the enemy is best documented 
for certain peoples of North-West Africa. The Galla gheraera, warriors' 
boasting, is often in the form of a challenge, sometimes hurled between 
two armies (Chadwicks iii, 1940: 548-49). The Somali geeraar also played 
an active part in war. Challenges to another clan to fight at an appointed 
place used to be delivered in this form, and it was also used to insult the 
enemy before the battle, at the same time raising the singer's morale. The 
geeraar is characterized by a note of urgency and rapid movement and 
was traditionally recited on horseback (Andrzejewski and Lewis 1964: 49). 
Among other groups, however, such as some of the Southern Bantu, the 
convention was to utter certain set war cries rather than songs at the time 
of the actual charge. 

War songs are possibly also sometimes sung in triumph on the victorious 
field of battle. This is supposed— perhaps speculatively— to have been the 
case with an old Bemba war song more recently sung only round the camp 
fire, but originally, it is said, it was sung by warriors dancing round the 
slain brandishing their spears. In it the chief is described sending out his 
warriors; on their return they 

Sing songs of victory, saying, 
'Sompa, sompa, sompa, sompa, sompa', with the heads of the slain. 

(O'Ferrall 1926-8: 841) 


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206 Oral Literature in Africa 

But there are not, in fact, many references to singing at the actual moment of 
victory. The most frequent occasions seem to be as the war parties depart or 
return home, at later celebrations after victory, or, occasionally, as challenge 
and insult before an actual battle. 

Figure 14. Ceremonial staff of Ogun, Yoruba, 25 ins high, top figure on horse 

6 Vi ins, probably late eighteenth century [detail]. Ogun is the Yoruba and 

Haitian god of iron, hunting, politics, blacksmiths and (the users of iron 

weapons) warriors. He is shown here, as often, on horseback, holding a spear 

(for further details see information in 

Also common are poems in which the events of war are touched on in 
retrospect. The exploits of war, together with religious topics, are the 
most common themes of poems associated with the Islamic tradition, as 

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8. Special Purpose Poetry— War, Hunting, and Work 207 

among the Swahili or the Hausa. It has already been said that, apart from 
Islamic influence, narrative poetry is not a typical form in African oral 
literature, and it is not surprising to find that in many of the poems about 
war the element of narrative is overshadowed by that of glorification, so 
that one cannot always draw the line between war poetry and panegyric 
(including praise at funeral celebrations). The praise poems of the Southern 
Bantu, discussed in an earlier chapter, have war and military prowess as 
one of their main themes, and the same blend of praise and interest in 
battle heroism can be seen in the 'heroic recitations' of the Ankole Hima. 
(Morris 1964) In Ruanda, Kagame describes military poetry as taking two 
main forms. (Kagame 1956-7, also Coupez and Kamanzi 1962) The heroic 
ibitekerezo (the conquests of Ruanda) are preserved by the court bards as 
a type of 'classical' military poetry. When young men are being trained 
in the military arts, they have to learn these poems and try to compose 
others in the same style. In these, it seems, the narrative element is the more 
marked. The second type, however, is much more in the form of panegyric. 
These are the lyric odes termed ibyivugo, composed by the court bards to 
exalt the exploits of heroes. There is no exact correspondence with real acts, 
for the point is to celebrate high and often fictitious deeds rather than to 
record ('c'etait de la Poesie; oeuvre d'imagination'), (Kagame 1956-57: 119) 
and the descriptions of battles are decorated by the frequent use of praise 
names glorifying the hero and his companions— 'Prodigue-de-blessures', 
'Chagrins-des-pays-etrangers', and so on. Contemplation and description 
of battle after the event seem inevitably to be expressed as glorification and 

These then are some of the occasions on which poems described in the 
sources as 'military' or 'war songs' were (or are) actually performed. It 
seems clear that the romantic picture of the 'natural' occasion for savage 
war songs — as mainly confined to the actual heat of battle, or its immediate 
prelude or aftermath— is an exaggerated one. 

How over-simplified this popular picture is will emerge further from a 
glimpse of the military poetry of the Nguni and the Akan peoples. These 
peoples, in particular their sub-groups the Zulu and the Ashanti, were well 
known to their European opponents of sixty or seventy years ago for their 
military qualities. The Nguni case must be pieced together from various 
passing references to their military poetry in the past. For the Akan we can 
look at the equally interesting way in which a type of poetry regarded as 
military survives in the contemporary situation. 


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208 Oral Literature in Africa 

The Nguni-speaking peoples of southern Africa are famous for their 
military organization and warlike ethic. The best known of all are the 
Zulu, 5 welded together into a great military system by Shaka in the early 
ninteenth century. But others too of this group have also been noted for the 
same all-pervading military spirit— the Swazi, neighbours of the Zulu, the 
Ndebele, and the Ngoni of Malawi who formed part of the great Nguni 
dispersal of peoples moving north as a result of Shaka's expansion. 

From Shaka's time the whole nation was organized into a kind of 
military camp, and war was the main centre of interest (Krige 1936: 261ff.). 
The stress on military glory, on triumph, and on the possibility of attaining 
honour and position through achievement in war comes out both in the 
praise songs discussed in an earlier chapter, and also in the Zulu war songs 
(iziqubulo, amahubo): 

Oye oyeye! 

Seek out the cowards, 

The lion-conqueror strikes. 

Come, let's march into battle; 

No more the time for boastful arguments. 

What, sayest thou the time for boastful argument is over? 


Who told the news that wranglings have ceased? 

The house of Qolwana set we on fire. 

We make no jokes, no lies tell we. 

He is full of hate, full of hate. 

Oyeyiya wo! 

Come, see us set aflame the house of Qolwana. 

On whom will you make war 

If you wipe out all the nations thus? 

Ho! Ho! . . . 

You who defeat the foes 

And conquer the nations. 

If you wipe out the nations thus, 

On whom will you make war? 

Yea, what will you do? 

You have subdued the kings; 

You have wiped out the nations. 

Where and what next, O Conqueror? 

E! E! E! (Dhlomo 1947: 6) 

Under Shaka, the Zulu were reorganized into regiments of 800-1,000 strong, 
making up an army of perhaps 20,000, maybe more (Krige 1936: 262). 

5 The most convenient summary is that in Krige 1936. 


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8. Special Purpose Poetry —War, Hunting, and Work 209 

There was a centralized standing army, an unusual feature in Africa, and 
unlike the Nilotes and similar peoples, the Zulu showed an interest in 
conquest and territorial expansion as well as mere raiding for cattle and other 
movables. Internally there was rivalry between the different Zulu regiments, 
expressed in competitiveness in battle and in dancing and singing at the royal 
kraal. Each regiment had its own regimental songs, dress, and war-cry, which 
distinguished it from others, and it was only in the actual heat of battle that the 
national war-cry was used; before that, as they set off, only the regimental 
war-cries were shouted. Each regiment also often had its military kraal, 
separate from others and under its own captain. Even in normal conditions 
the men were expected to serve for at least two to three months a year, and, 
if there was no war, they were engaged in various communal tasks. Even 
in peace, the military spirit was paramount. There was stern discipline, and 
military dances and songs fulfilled the function of drill. 6 Many of these dances 
were based on military manoeuvring and amounted to a kind of sham battle. 
The desire for glory, the excitement of war, and national and regimental pride 
could be instilled within the military kraals even in peacetime. 

War songs were also sung on more colourful occasions. The most 
striking of all was the annual first fruits ceremony held in the presence of 
the king, when the army of the nation gathered, regiment by regiment, to 
display its might in public. Several of these nineteenth-century displays are 
described in early sources, summed up by Krige: 

The most spectacular and imposing of all Zulu dancing was . . . that of the 
regiments of warriors in full regimental dress; and the annual dances at the 
royal kraal, just after the Feast of the First-fruits, must have presented a most 
brilliant and colourful sight .... 

The king first of all reviewed the army, seated in his chair of state. On 
the occasion witnessed by Delegorgue, the regiments of young warriors 
came, grouped in six great masses of about 1,000 each, made a rapid charge, 
then became orderly again and began to dance a war chant, the ground 
resounding under their feet. They marched to within five paces of the king, 
and formed a kind of serpent which unrolled itself from three rings. Each 
regiment had its own particular dance and song, and each man, on passing 
the king, bent low and hurled him a greeting with an air of anger. These 
evolutions lasted many hours . . . 

The king, on one such occasion, took his position at the head and centre 
of a line of several thousand men, with an equal number opposite them. They 
began to sing and march, reinforcing their foot movements with gestures 

6 Similar Swazi chants to accompany military drill (still being sung) can be heard on a 
recording in the 'Music of Africa' series (GALP 1041). 


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210 Oral Literature in Africa 

of the arms in all directions with wonderful uniformity. Then, chanting 
and dancing, the column following, the king slowly advanced and the two 
horns united to form a circle, the warriors finally sitting down in a ring with 
shields raised yet heads showing . . . (Krige 1936: 342) 

The excitement and pride engendered by such ceremonial displays come 
out too, although perhaps with rather lesser intensity, in the war songs 
sung before going out to battle, or in triumph after it. The desire for glory 
and the sense of competitiveness were incited by the stirring war songs 
and dances, where the words, the melody, and the movement all helped to 
create a warlike atmosphere. These, like other war songs, were often highly 
rhythmical and onomatopoeic. An example can be given from the Ngoni 
of Malawi, a Nguni offshoot who preserve war songs of the same types as 
do the more southerly Nguni groups. They are known as imigubo (songs 
for setting out to war) and, though short and onomatopoeic, mount up to a 
high pitch of intensity as the men dance, stamping their feet and knocking 
their shields: 

Ee, ee, ee 

What are we contending for? 

What are we contending for 

In this way in the sky? 

Ee, ee, ee 

Oyi, oyi, oyi! 

The sun is setting. 

Ee, ee, ee 

What are we contending for? 

What are we contending for 

In this way in the sky? 

Ee, ee, ee 

Oyi, oyi, oyi! (Read 1937: 30) 

These songs, once so appropriate to the warlike spirit of Nguni society, are 
not totally forgotten today. In the 1930s some were still being sung in Malawi; 
others have been recorded more recently in South Africa by the African 
Music Society. However, nowadays they are used mainly for ceremonial 
display or, at times, to pander to romantic ideas about the savage and tribal 
past of the Bantu. Some of the songs are now sometimes adapted for faction 
fighting (Tracey 1948b: vii-viii), and modifications of the old military forms 
have been used, it is said, for political intimidation (Afr. Music 2, 4, 1961: 
117 (Southern Rhodesia)). But these survivals are of less interest than the 
purposeful development of military literature in the nineteenth century. 
These earlier Nguni war songs can only be fully appreciated in relation to 


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8. Special Purpose Poetry— War, Hunting, and Work 211 

their complex and specialized military organization. They are not attached 
primarily to the circumstances of actual battle, but to the routine and the 
ceremonies of military activity developed among a people for whom, even 
in peacetime, the military ethic was predominant. 

The Akan peoples, with their multiplicity of specialist associations, are very 
different from the Nguni. The Akan have a tradition of warrior associations or 
'war companies' that possess their own characteristic form of drumming and 
poetry. (Nketia \96Sb, Ch. 9) It is true that these associations no longer flourish 
as in the past (the Ashanti associations, for example, were suppressed after the 
events of 1896-1900). But in the southern Akan area, particularly among the 
Fante, they are still active, and even elsewhere their poetry is still performed. 
There is an over-all homogeneity in their patterns of music and organization 
that makes it possible to generalize about their poetry. 

There are two main types of Akan warrior associations: companies of 
the court comprising the highest war leaders under the control of the rulers, 
and the company of commoners, asafo, a term now used indiscriminately 
for all warrior associations. These war companies consist of all able-bodied 
men combined under a leader in external or internal disputes. They also act 
as a group for certain types of communal work and in the enthronement 
and deposition ceremonies of rulers. In the Fante area where these asafo 
companies are most important, there may be as many as seven or ten 
companies in a single town; elsewhere one village or group of villages 
shares one company. All these companies are highly organized bodies with 
their own captains, who act as intermediaries between themselves and the 
political rulers of the state. They are headed by the 'captain of the host' 
or war leader who is helped by various other officials, among them the 
frankaatufoo or standard-bearer who regulates the march, the asafo kyerema, 
the master drummer who calls the warriors to action, urges them on, and 
keeps up morale, and the nnawutabofoo, player of twin gongs. 

Drumming plays an important part. Drums and gongs are played with 
a few members of the company leading the song, the rest acting as chorus. 
Among the most important songs are the calls. These are rousing cries to 
the company that, nowadays at least, precede or interrupt a cycle of songs 
but show clear marks of their once fully military character: 

Fire! 7 Fire! 

Fire! Asafo Kyiremu. 8 

7 Sign of danger hence = alarm. 

8 The name of an association; any other such name may be substituted. 


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212 Oral Literature in Africa 


We are not afraid. 

No, not a bit. 

Asafo Kyiremu, 

We are not afraid of anybody. (Nketia 1963fo: 107) 

Different companies often have their own special calls and responses, 
sometimes partly 'spoken' by the drummer, and these mark out their 
identity as distinct from others and 'engender the mass feeling that is so 
important in the activities of asafo. (Ibid.: 108) 

This feeling is further intensified by the frequent songs celebrating 
particular companies, combining boastfulness with insults to their enemies. 
Thus one song about Apente (a court company) runs: 

Osee, man of Apente. 

Osee, man of Apente, 

We shall fight battles for our nation, 

There was a battle brewing; Osee, 

But the army of the enemy never arrived. 

We did not feel their presence. 

You are children of ghosts, and nocturnal fighters. 

Night fighters, /ifc 

You have laid them low. 

Osee has laid you low. 

The night fighter has laid you low. 4 (Idem) 

Another such song refers to the Ashanti wars with the British and praises 
the deeds of Apagya, a royal military company among the Ashanti: 

Hirelings adamant to rain and scorching sun, 

Members of the Apagya company, 

There was a cannon mounted vainly on top of the fort. ' 

The cannon could not break us, 

The trusted company that engages in battle. 

Hail the helper! (Idem) 

The Apagya company is also exultantly praised in 

He has killed the Southerners. 

He has killed the Northerners, 

It is Asafo Apagya, 

The Umbrella tree. 

The Umbrella tree has branches above and below, 

The crafty Umbrella tree. 

9 Refers to the Ashanti wars with the British. 


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8. Special Purpose Poetry— War, Hunting, and Work 213 


Hail the helper! (Nketia 1963b: 108-9) 

Not all military songs explicitly glorify war, however. Some also exhibit an 
awareness of the dangers and cost of war. There are always casualties, for 
'battle never goes hungry'. The warrior leaves in the knowledge that he may 
not return but that he goes to do his duty courageously: 

Kwaakwaa 10 accompanies me to the front. 

Man of Apagya, if I die in the morning, no-one should mourn for me. 

Yes if I fall in the morning, 

Okoromansa accompanies me to battle, no-one should weep on my account. 11 

Yes if I fall in the morning, 

If I fall in the morning do not cry. 

Yes if I die in the morning. (Ibid.: 109) 

Members of the association are also summoned to battle by a drum-call 
giving the association's name, praise name, and other characteristic marks 
that distinguish it from others. One of these 

Bodyguard as strong as iron, 
Fire that devours the nations . . . 

is quoted in full in Chapter 17. In another the various names associated 
with the company are given, then the ordinary members are stirred up for 
the fight: 

Members of the Advance Guard, I mean you. 

The leopard goes hungry 

If it pounces on a tortoise. 

The leopard should never be considered old and feeble. 

The leopard walks in the thicket: 

The thicket trembles and shakes violently. 

Come hosts; come hosts; come hosts! 

Come in thick numbers. (Ibid.: Ill) 

There are also 'songs for conveying a dead member to a place of burial, 
songs for parading in the street, songs of insult, songs of incitement and 
so on'. (Ibid.: 110) Besides these there are also some characteristic types 
belonging to particular companies or groups of companies. The No. 1 
Company of Cape Coast, for example, has several styles of drumming, each 
used with a set of songs designed to accompany different kinds of action. 

10 The god of a certain Apagya company. 

11 As interpreted by a member of the company: 'If I fall in the morning of my life, do not cry'. 


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214 Oral Literature in Africa 

A high-spirited style accompanies a display of bravery in leap-dancing and 
strutting action, and a gentler style is used for normal dancing. Associations 
also sometimes create their own recreational music and dance as well as 
the more traditional types. All the regular songs are characterized by their 
emotional quality and by the specially stirring effect of the drumming, 
achieved largely by the peculiar timbre of the leading drums. Within this 
general spirit of the military songs 

the leading role is . . . played by the cantors who may vary their styles. 
Sometimes they sing long sustained notes while the chorus is held in 
suspense; sometimes they use a recitative style, interpolating pauses in 
the chorus responses with calls, short phrases or shouts, while others 
animate the performance with occasional whistling and catcalls. Everybody 
lets himself go, singing at the top of his voice and with great feeling. 

(Nketia 1963b: 110) 

Are these military songs still significant? Obviously the directly military 
functions of warrior associations have been superseded, and in Ashanti at 
least, in the present century, they have not even acted as very pronounced 
corporate groups. Yet it seems that not only are the companies active on 
certain occasions (particularly in the south) and seize the opportunity to 
perform their own songs and music, but in some contexts they preserve 
their warlike and forceful spirit. As Nketia writes: 

In the past, the most important context in which Asafo groups drummed and 
acted was during wars. Although this is no longer operative, there is always 
a resurgence of the war spirit during major political disputes, particularly 
disputes over constitutional issues in which Asafo groups act as political 
pressure groups. Thus in Ashanti, where Asafo companies are practically 
dormant, political crises often bring a temporary awakening of such groups 
who are kept together by drums and songs which promote the type of action 
required by the situation. (Ibid.: 115) 

Asafo music also still occurs in other contexts. 12 In rural areas in the south, 
asafo companies are called on to perform certain communal tasks and to 
organize search-parties for missing persons, in the forest and at sea. Such 
searches create a particularly emotional atmosphere if the missing person 
is a member of the company, and many asafo songs are sung. Funerals of 
a member are also occasions for the performance of these songs. In the 
southern Akan states there are sometimes special annual ceremonies 

12 Or apparently did when Nketia was writing. His book appeared in 1963, based on field 
research in the 1950s. 


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8. Special Purpose Poetry —War, Hunting, and Work 215 

when members renew their loyalty to their association and to the chief, in 
which the most important feature is the performance of music and dancing, 
sometimes accompanied by the firing of guns, the exhibition of the 
association's standards and emblems, and the installation of new officers. 
Annual festivals of the community as a whole are often the most common 
occasions for corporate public activity by warrior companies. 

In all these contexts the spirit of enjoyment as well as of emotional 
intensity is now evident. The military companies are distinguished by their 
specialized artistic conventions— the military mode of song, music, and 
drumming— and, in adapting to changing situations, retain the military 
subject-matter and warlike fervour which before was of more practical 
immediate relevance. 13 


Hunting poetry can be discussed more briefly. It shares many of the 
characteristics of military poetry, particularly its association with the ideas of 
danger, pride, and glory, its common appearance as a more or less specialized 
branch of poetry, and, finally, its frequent preoccupation not just with action 
but with the contemplation of action, in prospect or (more often) in retrospect. 
It is not surprising that hunting, with its associated hazards and heroism, 
is a frequent topic in the songs of many peoples. It is, for example, one of the 
most common themes of Bushman songs (Kirkby 1936: 245) in a way that 
fits their harsh struggle for existence. This is well expressed by Marshall: 

Women bring the daily food, but there is nothing splendid about returning 
with vegetables and wood. Many of the vegetable foods, furthermore, are 
rather tasteless and harsh and are not very satisfying. The return of the 
hunters is vastly different. The intense craving for meat, the anxiety that 
goes with the hunt, the deep excitement of the kill, finally the eating and 
the satisfaction reach to the very core of the people, engaging powerful 
emotions. Once a young man, Qui, who was said to be the best hunter in the 
region, had been charged by a magnificent cock ostrich on a big open pan 
where there was no refuge. He knelt, facing the creature, until it was within 
close range and shot an arrow straight into its heart. Back in the werf, while 
the meat was being cut up and distributed by Qui's wife's brothers, he slept 
exhausted on the mound of black and white plumes and the women— some 

13 Other references on military songs include: Munonga 1952 (AA 5. 345; includes eight war 
songs); Cerulli 1942 (reference in IAI Bibl. (AA) Jones 1959: 33); Savard 1965; Gaden 1916; 
Westermann 1912: 237-8; Dahle 1927: 174-95. 


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216 Oral Literature in Africa 

of the plumes in their hair — danced a dance of praise around him. This is the 
role of! Kung [Bushman] hunters. (Marshall 1965: 235) 

The romance and excitement associated with hunting is vividly depicted in 
the Zulu song about a buffalo hunt: 

Iyeyahe! Iyayayi! 

A whirlwind! the buffalo! 

Some leave and go home; 

Some pursue and obtain; 

We shoot the rising, 

But leave the wounded. 

Iyeyahe (Dhlomo 1947: 6) 

Perhaps the most common occasion for hunting songs is a successful kill. 
As in military celebrations, they often take place some time after the event. 
We do, it is true, occasionally hear of a solitary hunter or group of hunters 
bursting into more or less immediate song over some outstanding kill. 
Among the Akan, for instance, a hunter is expected to climb on to the body 
of an elephant and burst into song: 

The violent shaker that shakes down living trees it by-passes [the elephant], 

Duedu Akwa, 

Father Duedu Duben, 

Oben and Dankyira, trier-of-Death, 

Father [the hunter] deserves to be congratulated. 

Father has achieved something: 

The hunter has done well! 

(Nketia 1963/?: 81; for a Rongo song in similar circumstances see Junod 1897: 55) 

But even among the Akan, hunting songs are most frequently performed 
on public and festive occasions. In general the most commonly mentioned 
occasion is when the hunter has returned to the village: he is often 
welcomed and congratulated. The Ethiopian hunter returning from killing 
an elephant is received by a double chorus: 

1st chorus. He has slain, he has destroyed him. 

2nd chorus. Whither went he when he slew him? 

1st chorus. As he went hence did I see him at all? 

All. Perhaps on the bank of the river he has stricken him down. 

Destroyer and slayer art thou called, Hurrah, Hurrah, doubly 

a slayer. (Chadwicks, iii, 1940: 514) 

Among other peoples a later and more organized celebration is the usual 
pattern. Thus among the Limba of northern Sierra Leone, the killing of a 
bush cow is regarded as the occasion for a special celebration (madonsia). 


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8. Special Purpose Poetry— War, Hunting, and Work 217 

But this never takes place on the actual occasion of the hunt. Instead, a 
special date is fixed, several days later. Then, in the night, the hunter comes 
out, accompanied and watched by others, and the special hunters' songs 
and dances are performed. The occasion necessarily involves many people 
as participants and spectators, and is in striking contrast to the actual 
process of the hunt, typically pursued, among the Limba, by the solitary 
individual, followed only by his faithful dog. 

Praise and celebration is often reserved for the killing of game 
considered to be particularly outstanding or dangerous. According to 
the area, these may be such animals as elephant, lion, leopard, or buffalo. 
The risks and the achievement of the hunter(s) are further magnified by 
the terms used to refer to these beasts— like, for example, the Yoruba 
'Elephant praisenamed He-who-uses-his-hand-as-a-trumpet, Elephant 
called He-who-remains-mountainous-even-when-seated' (Babalola 1965: 
51). The hunter himself also sings boastfully of his exploits and retells his 
heroism in poetry designed for an audience rather than for the exigencies 
of the hunt itself. Among the Akan he announces his return after a major 
kill by firing his gun on the outskirts of the village, and when people come 
to meet him he relates his success in recitative, a set refrain denoting the sex 
of the elephant killed— for example: 

I am stalking an animal. 

I am stalking an animal stealthily, 

That I might kill it. (Nketia 1963b: 84) 

Such songs of triumph and recollection are common and are often 
mentioned as separate forms. In some societies they are particularly 
specialized. Hunters may be expected to undergo special training, often 
involving magical and artistic as well as practical skills, and are sometimes 
formed into organized associations with their own rules, hierarchy, and 
initiation. Such organizations are not uncommon in West Africa and often 
have their own songs. Among the Akan the professional association of 
hunters uses hunting songs to assert their pride and their dominance over 
even the political authorities— or so they wish to suggest: 

Is the chief greater than the hunter? 
Arrogance! Hunter? Arrogance! 
The pair of beautiful things on your feet, 
The sandals that you wear, 
How did it all happen? 
It is the hunter that killed the duyker: 
The sandals are made of the hide of the duyker. 


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218 Oral Literature in Africa 

Does the chief say he is greater than the hunter? 

Arrogance! Hunter? Arrogance! 
The noisy train that leads you away, 
The drums that precede you, 
The hunter killed the elephant, 
The drum head is the ear of the elephant. 
Does the chief say he is greater than the hunter? 

Arrogance! Hunter? Arrogance! (Nketia 1963/?: 76) 

Hunting songs are also often sung at the funerals of skilled hunters. 14 
Hunting associations also sometimes have special festivals when, for 
example, they admit hunters to new ranks in the hierarchy or celebrate a 
major kill (Ibid.: 85ff.). At these celebrations the episodes of the hunt are 
often dramatically re-enacted, with the members of the association singing 
and declaiming the traditional hunting songs. 

In some cases, hunting poems have become a specialized and independent 
branch of poetry, no longer related to the actual hunt at all. Yoruba ijala 
chants, for example, are sometimes associated specifically with hunting and 
performed at gatherings of specialist hunters. But ijala artists are also highly 
regarded by the public as general entertainers and are invited to perform on 
social occasions that have no specific association with hunting at all (Babalola 
1966: 33). This genre of Yoruba poetry has its own conventions and themes 
(see Babalola 1964). It is delivered as a kind of recitative— 'a type of speech 
utterance with rudimentary musical characteristics, rather than a species of 
song' (Babalola 1966: 33)— which is accentuated by certain rhythmic and tonal 
devices. Often there is no very clear central theme, but the poem rambles from 
one topic to another in a way that distinguishes these poems from certain of 
the other specialist branches of Yoruba poetry and also demonstrates how far 
removed this species of hunting poetry is from direct involvement in action. 
One dominant theme is verbal salute and praise in such phrases as 'Son of a 
fighter at Ilala, offspring of warriors carrying many arrows', or 'In my very 
person I have come, / Atanda He-whose-face-is-usually-cloudy-like-fhe-sky- 
before-a-storm, / He-who-fatigues-his-opponent-like-a-person-soaked- 
and-exhausted by rain' (Babalola 1965: 52; 54). 15 But there are also many chants 
about the animals and plants of the forest, particularly about monkeys, 
antelopes, elephants, or the much feared buffalo. Various comments on 
social life are also typical and many of the poems are noted for their vitality 

14 e.g. among the Dogon, Limba, Akan, Ambo, and many others. 

15 The last two sections of the second passage consist of three words only in the original. 


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8. Special Purpose Poetry— War, Hunting, and Work 219 

and humour, in particular their treatment of sex. These points can be 
illustrated from three ijala poems from Gbadamosi and Beier's examples: 

Tuku- Wild Pig 
The fat one of the thick bush. 
The animal that carries scissors in its mouth. 
Although we do not marry his daughter 
Yet he demands to be treated like our father-in-law. 
(For the one who wants to shoot it 
Must prostrate to it). 
An animal that enlarges its nose 
In order to better smell the vagina. (Gbadamosi and Beier 1959: 33) 

Erin— Elephant 
Elephant who brings death. Elephant, a spirit in the bush. 
With his single hand he can pull two palm trees to the ground. 
If he had two hands — 
He would tear the heavens like an old rag. 
The spirit who eats dog, the spirit who eats ram. 
The spirit who eats a whole palm fruit with its thorns. 
With his four mortar legs — he tramples down the grass. 
Wherever he walks, the grass is forbidden to stand up again. 

An elephant is not a load for an old man— /jfc 

Nor for a young man either. (Gbadamosi and Beier 1959: 34) 

If you eat me and call my praises at the same time 
You teach me to be dangerous. 11 ' 

Plant me like a good planter — and I will grow fat even like yam. 
Throw me away — and I will still develop well. 

But the one who hangs me on the branch of a tree — he is really my enemy. 
I do not fight the one who holds the stick — 
Only the one who holds the pot. 17 
It causes the lips of the wife to swell. 
It enlarges the penis of the husband. 
The mouth of Lambare becomes large like a drum. 
If you ask him: What is the matter? 
Are you eating so much cassava? 
He will reply: Oh, occasionally, occasionally, 
You just wait: cassava will deal with you. 
Tete Bere! Now you have dysentery! 
Now you start worshipping Oshun! 
This is not a matter for the gods: 

16 It is forbidden to say the oriki (praises) of cassava while eating it. 

17 When making gruel out of cassava flour the one holding the pot may burn his fingers. 


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220 Oral Literature in Africa 

Even if you pray to Obatala himself 

Cassava will carry you away! 

When people see you on the road they argue: 

Is it a new wife? Ha, it is cassava. 

See how it rubs its body with red camwood. 18 

Cassava with a rough skin to its back. (Gbadamosi and Beier 1959: 34) 

These ijala poems are far removed from simple and more direct hunting 
songs. The Yoruba hunter is expected to possess intellectual skills beyond 
those to do with the hunt and to sing of other topics than his own bravery. 
Yet these poems are locally classed as the poetry of hunters and ultimately 
are connected with the same root idea as in other hunting poems— the idea 
of hunting as a heroic and memorable activity. 19 

This cursory discussion of hunting poetry will be concluded by a 
somewhat fuller account of the hunting songs (cinengwe) of the Ambo of 
Zambia, which have been treated in some detail by Stefaniszyn (1951). 

For the Ambo the hunter— and above all the elephant hunter— is 
traditionally surrounded with a halo of romance and hero-worship. Though 
there seem to be no associations of the West African type, nevertheless, hunters 
are experts and have their own rituals, feasts, and songs. The Ambo hunter 
seems to be typically a solitary practitioner, but in certain respects he is helped 
and guided by other members of the community and has obligations to them 
when he kills meat. He usually receives his gun— the mark of a hunter— from 
one of his mother's relations in accordance with the matrilineal inheritance 
pattern of the Ambo, and, both after his acquisition of the gun and before certain 
of the hunts, private and joint rituals are carried out to ensure success. A hunter 
also has a special relationship with the spirit of one of his dead kinsmen, often 
his father, who guards and guides him as a hunter. The emotional relationship 
with his father is of a much more personal nature than the legal bond with his 
matrilineal kin and comes out in several of the hunting songs. The son praises 
his father's exploits as a hunter and mourns his loss: 

I had a father, 

The wailing is great. 

Father, it's dawn . . . 

I remember the great hunter. 

They are bursting into tears . . . 

I, a poor fellow, I shall wail, 

I, who had been dividing the meat. (Stefaniszyn 1951: 6) 

18 Cassava has a reddish colour like camwood. New hrides rub their bodies with camwood. 

19 For further discussion and examples of ijala poetry, see Babalola 1966; also Collier 1953. 


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8. Special Purpose Poetry— War, Hunting, and Work 221 

Or, again, he sets out delighting in his gun. Then his thoughts are drawn 
back sorrowfully to when his father was alive— but he brings himself back 
to the present, to look at the tracks of his quarry: 

How fine is my gun, 

How fine is my gun, 

Ah, when my father was alive. 

I mourn for Siliyolomona, 

But I must see the tracks. (Stefaniszyn 1951: 6) 

When an Ambo hunter is wandering alone and unsuccessful he 
sometimes sings to cheer himself up. But by far the most frequent 
occasions for performing the hunting chants are communal ones. The 
hunting chants are sung with other songs at ordinary beer parties. A 
hunter also joins with others in singing on the night before a hunt, and 
at the sacrificial beer for a successful hunt. A special 'hunting feast' 
may also be prepared by a hunter who has killed, say, four animals. He 
invites his friends and feeds them from the meat he has killed. After 
the meal the men sing about the hunt. They reminisce, for example, 
about how the game is being cut up or how a canoe is called for after a 
hippopotamus has been killed: 

Chop it, chop it, chop it, 

Do take it and chop it; 

Do take it and chop it yourself .1 

Chipishya, bring the boat, 

Have you killed it, hunter? 

Chipishya bring the boat, 

Chipishya bring the boat, 

Have you killed it, hunter? (Ibid.: 4) 

Stefaniszyn states that the hunting songs sung on these occasions are all 
traditional ones, and that no new songs are composed. They are all relatively 
short and fairly directly involved with the actual process of hunting and its 
consequences. In other words, Ambo hunting poetry does not seem to have 
developed into a complex and flexible branch of poetry that can be turned 
to many subjects and occasions in the way we have seen in some of the 
Akan or Yoruba 'hunting poems'. Nor are there lengthy narratives. 'This is 
lyrical poetry. There are no long descriptions of events, but a short recalling 
of events of rather sentimental value, always very realistic'. (Stefaniszyn 
1951: 11-12) 

Their artistic conventions come out partly in the mode of delivery. 
Though they are sung antiphonally, the melody is not of great importance 


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222 Oral Literature in Africa 

and the main tone is recitando with strongly marked rhythm. The 
accompaniment consists of percussion (gourd drums, rattles, and axe- 
blades struck against stones), and sometimes the hunter himself dances 
with a gun, horns, and animal trophies. There are also stylistic and verbal 
conventions. A special poetic vocabulary is used in the songs, including 
borrowed and perhaps archaic words. This poetic effectiveness is 
heightened by the frequent use of ideophones and of what Stefaniszyn 
refers to as 'Homeric epithets' — praise terms like 'The uprooter of mwenge 
trees' (of an elephant) or 'The pursuer of game .... The pursuer of tails' 
(the hunter). The use of various types of parallelism is also common, 
compared by Stefaniszyn to that in the Hebrew psalms. This may 
involve more repetition or the type of development through parallelism 
exemplified by 

Off he went to the veld, 

Off he went to the veld, the great hunter. (Stefaniszyn 1952: 11) 

Parallelism is also used to lead up to a climax at the very end of the piece — a 
marked tendency in these poems: 

Heavens, my heart is throbbing, 
While I see them standing. 
Heavens, my heart is throbbing, 
While I see them standing, 
While I see the game standing. 

Nafwa mutima kubamba, 

Pakusanga silimakene. 

Nafwa mutima kubamba 

Pakusanga silimakene, 

Pakusanga silimakene noma. (Ibid.: 10) 

This song, expressing the hunter's thrill at the sight of game, leads up to an 
effective climax when the final word 'game' (nama) 'is at last uttered as if 
with awe'. (Stefaniszyn 1952: 10) 

Besides the conventional forms of delivery and verbal expression 
there are also stock themes, all directly concerned with hunting. Several 
of these have been illustrated already: the triumph and excitement of a 
successful kill and its aftermath; family feelings, especially the emotions 
of pride and grief felt by a son for his father; and the thrill of pursuit. But 
the hardships and dangers of hunting are not forgotten, and these too are 


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8. Special Purpose Poetry— War, Hunting, and Work 223 

common subjects. The Ambo hunter's grim tenacity and perseverance in 
face of hardship are often extolled: 

Let the hunter take out the thorn, 

Let the hunter take out the thorn, 

Then cursing and roving. 

You love it, you will die of the thorn. 

Off he went to the veld. 

Off he went to the veld, the great hunter. (Stefaniszyn 1951: 4) 

Worse than physical hardship is the disappointment when the hunter is 
unsuccessful, and this too is a frequent theme in song: 

I shall taste the mark of the game, 

When I find them where they lie. 

Abundant is the spoor of game, 

But the game has slipped away — 

It is gone. (Idem) 


We are tired of this bush; 

There are no shadows in it, 

There are no shadows in it, mind you, 

There are no shadows of game. (Idem) 

Success is sometimes tinged with jealousy when the hunter compares his 
own achievements with those of others. One song, for instance, describes 
the success of a hunter's companions: 

It's boiling and boiling, 

The hunters are cooking in a big pot. 

It's boiling and boiling, 

The hunters are cooking in a big pot. 

Truly it's boiling hard, 

I'll kill two head to-morrow. (Ibid.: 9) 

These Ambo hunting songs are more simple and direct than, for example, 
some of those from West Africa. Yet like them they involve the glorification 
of the hunter, the expression of his hopes and fears, the activities of the chase, 
and reminiscence and reflection at a time removed from the actual hunt. 
They are most frequently performed on public occasions— for in hunting, 
as in war all members of the community, and not just the individual hero, 
are involved in both its results and its poetic distillation. 20 

20 Further references to hunting songs include Bouillon 1954 and Paulay 1952. 


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224 Oral Literature in Africa 


Songs to accompany rhythmic work seem to occur universally in African 
societies. They are extreme examples of 'special purpose' poetry in that 
they have a direct connection with a specific occasion and with action 
itself, to an extent not found in most hunting and war chants. The sort 
of work that these songs accompany usually consists of routine tasks 
such as paddling, threshing, or hauling— which are not in themselves 
regarded as glorious or romantic. Unlike hunting and military poetry the 
work thus provides the occasion rather than the subject-matter, and the 
song depends on the rhythm of the work rather than an audience for its 
point of departure. 

The occasions for these work songs include almost all contexts in which 
monotonous labour is involved; though conventions as to their use vary 
in different societies. 21 There are co-operative songs for hoeing, weeding, 
mowing, launching a boat, sawing, hauling in fish-nets, pounding, 
floor-beating, throwing water up from deep wells in a human chain, 
carrying a chief in his hammock, hanging up beehives, or rubbing animal 
skins to make them soft; there are domestic and solitary songs for women 
grinding corn or pounding rice; there are gang songs for pulling trucks, for 
road work, for factory hands, and for miners. 

It is well known that manual workers often sing such songs to 
accompany their hard physical labour. The dock hands at Beira have a song 

Dawn — with freight, 

Yes, Yes! 
Dawn — with freight, 

Look for the label. (Curtis 1920: 32) 

while the men pushing heavy truck-loads of hides down the Kilindini road 
in Mombasa used to sing in Swahili 

Namna hii— macho jnu! This way — eyes up! 

Senti hapana— macho juu! There are no cents — eyes up! 

(Werner 1927: 102) 

Many other similar songs are popular among labouring gangs. There are, 
for instance, the songs by South African road workers and miners, by the 
men working on the Kariba dam, or by builders in Nigeria. 

21 On the conventions in different parts of Ghana, for example, see Nketia 1962: 7. 


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8. Special Purpose Poetry— War, Hunting, and Work 225 

Figure 15. Limba work party spread out in the upland rice farm, inspired 
by Karanke's drumming, Kakarima, 1961 (photo Ruth Finnegan). 

In rural areas, agricultural work provides the occasion for work songs. For 
instance, in Southern Rhodesia, maize threshing is a popular time for songs. 
The men and boys do the singing while the women stay in the background, 
yodelling at intervals with a staccato effect. As often with work songs, the 
words themselves are simple, with many nonsense words to fill up the rhythm 
effectively, and there is alternation between leaders and chorus. This is evident 
in the following three Zezuru threshing songs from Southern Rhodesia: 

1st. Leave me to die, they have gored me, Nwechafaka. 

All. Yes, yes (he he ha he ha) the priest, oh, plenty of trouble. 

1st. Do not trouble me — 

All. Trouble, trouble 

Let the women dance in our honour, do not trouble me 

My wife do not come to trouble me. 
1st. Wife 
All. Trouble 
1st. To the spring 

All. Trouble 

We love each other friend, is she not friend. 

1st. Woe is me, we have grown up 

All. Those who have cattle, let them gather them, we do not know 

1st. Woiye iye iye you must thresh like mother 

All. Oh, they cry for a fruit tree. (Stead 1937) 

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226 Oral Literature in Africa 

The way such songs can at once lighten, co-ordinate, and embellish 
agricultural labour can be briefly illustrated from two types of work songs 
among the Limba. For them, songs accompany many of their agricultural 
activities. Two only are singled out here: hoeing the rice near the start of the 
farming year, and the threshing that follows harvesting. 

One of the most demanding occasions of the Limba farming cycle is hoeing 
in the rice after it has been sown, and this, if undertaken by individuals, is 
regarded as involving wearisome and exhausting labour. The most common 
practice is to form special 'companies', each with a drummer, to go round 
to the farms to hoe. The occasion is turned into a festive one. The drummer 
stands in front, beating his drum and leading the song. Next follow those who 
are scattering the seed. And finally the hoers come, perhaps sixteen or twenty 
of them, sometimes fifty or more, stretched across the hillside in a long line 
singing in reply to the leader. The whole line raise their hoes simultaneously, 
then strike together at the ground three times before the up-stroke and pause 
as the hoes are raised once more— a marked rhythm of dig, dig, dig, up; one, 
two, three, pause, with strong emphasis on the first down-stroke. The beat and 
song keep the line exactly together, and there is a feeling of competition and 
excitement which keeps all in their places with no falling behind or faltering. 
In this way the huge farm gets hoed with incredible speed, and the Limba 
themselves point to the importance of the songs in adding both efficiency and 
pleasure. Their joy in the songs is very obvious (they even look forward to this 
season of exhausting work), and many of them make semi-dancing steps as 
they progress with their hoes up the hill. 

Figure 16. Work company of singing threshers at Sanasi's farm, Kakarima, 

where the work is accomplished with amazing speed and joy, the rhythm 

being essential to coordinate the blows, 1961 (photo Ruth Finnegan). 

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8. Special Purpose Poetry— War, Hunting, and Work 227 

Many Limba consider the songs used for threshing even more attractive. 
In these— normally sung by rather smaller groups— the words are more 
developed, more variation seems to be encouraged and many different songs 
are sung on one occasion. There is no drumming and usually no specialist 
singer, for even the leader takes part in the work, albeit a little less vigorously 
and regularly than the others. The occasion of threshing is a happy one: the 
harvest is on the way to completion, there is plenty of food once again, 
and the moment that has been looked forward to throughout the year has 
arrived. The rice is piled up on the threshing area, and the young men gather 
round with their sticks, raising them in a ring of a dozen or so at a time. 
Another ring may form at the other end of the threshing floor, and, led by 
the most expert singer, the two groups begin by answering to each other's 
song in turn, repeating the verse inaugurated by the leader. Later they join 
together in the chorus. Again a fourfold rhythm forms the framework of the 
music and the work, this time with the stress on the third beat, followed by a 
pause as the sticks are raised and the men take a step together, kicking up the 
straw, to move down the floor— beat, beat, beat, pause; one, two, three, step. 
With heavy sticks about three feet long, brought down with great force, the 
co-ordinated timing given by the rhythm of the music is indeed necessary 
to avoid accidents as well as to encourage and delight both workers and 
bystanders. They may sing, for example: 

Soloist. Don't reproach me about (not having) children! 

I had a child long ago but God did not let him live. 
1st chorus. Don't reproach me about children! 

I had a child long ago but the witches ate him. 
2nd chorus. Laima o laima. 21 

1st chorus. Yes! 

2nd chorus. Laima o laima. 

Double chorus. Don't reproach me about children! 

I had a child long ago but the witches ate him. 
Soloist. Don't reproach me about (not having) a wife! 

I had a wife long ago, but the chief took her. 
1st chorus Don't reproach me about a wife! 

I had a wife long ago, but the chief took her. 
2nd chorus Laima o laima. 

1st chorus. Yes! 

2nd chorus. Laima o laima. 

Double chorus. Don't reproach me about a wife! 

I had a wife long ago but the chief took her . . . 

22 Meaningless but (to the Limba) pleasing syllables. 


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228 Oral Literature in Africa 

and so on and on with constant repetitions of the soloist's verses. This 
time the dancing is quite explicit. The step onwards is a dance step, the 
movements are thought beautiful in themselves, and sometimes the rice 
is beaten only twice so that the dance can be elaborated in the time of the 
third beat. The work is exhausting and the men run with sweat— but the 
dominant feeling is of a festive and artistic occasion. 23 

Canoeing songs are common among many riparian and coastal peoples. 
They are especially well known in the Zambesi area. The Chikunda people, 
for instance, are known as excellent watermen along the Zambesi from its 
mouth to Feira, and their boat songs are excellently designed to accompany 
the rhythm of their paddling: 

The outside hand holds the paddle shaft below the bulwarks and over the 
side. The shaft is then tapped on the boatside during the stroke and again 
as it is being withdrawn from the water. Then there is a pause before the 
new stroke. The rhythm is one of four beats, thus — instroke, tap, tap, silent, 
in, tap, tap, silent. This gives the effect of triple time, and so a cross rhythm 
results when combined with the singing. The speed of stroke varies between 
40 and 44 to the minute. (Denny 1936-37: 35-6) 

The songs are usually sung by a soloist, often encouraged by shouts from his 
companions, while the chorus comes in with meaningless words like aye, oyo, 
ndende. Sometimes they are sung antiphonally one side of paddles answered 
by the other (Kidney 1921: 119). The actual words are simple, and the attraction 
of the songs seems to lie in the music and the rhythm that accompany the 
steady stroke of the paddle. There is also some interest in the subject-matter, 
which, however sketchy, distracts from the labour of the moment: 

Let the horn sound! 
Sound the trumpet; 
Yes, let it sound. (Ibid.: 41) 

This is a song about drinking: the beer is finished, so now let us dance, to 
drums and horns. Or again: 

Leave the drum, leave the drum, 
Leave the dance. 

I wear clothes 

Because I am clever. (Idem) 

The background to the third song is said to be a husband's asking his wife 
where she had got extra clothes beyond what he himself had given her. 

23 Fieldnotes, 1961. 


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8. Special Purpose Poetry— War, Hunting, and Work 229 

She replies with this song repeated over and over by the paddlers. The next 
song is also about love, the song of the cunning Don Juan who has only to 
look at a woman and speak for her to come— but he never marries properly 
and is always in trouble with the parents: 

I have married a wife with my eyes, 

The dowry was my mouth, ye ye; 

I have married with my eyes. (Denny 1936-37: 38) 

Many of the other songs too are about everyday matters — love and marriage, 
leaving and returning home, dancing, eating, family life. About the only 
one that refers to the river at all is about the hippopotamus (poetically 
called a rhinoceros), which is a favourite dish along the river: 

O rhinoceros, O man rhinoceros, 

Rhinoceros of the river banks 

Is good to eat with tomatoes. (Ibid.: 42) 

The same type of subject-matter also occurs in songs by some of the Congo 
river boatmen. The Mabale paddle songs recorded by Tanghe (1926-8) 
are more often about local events, death, the ancestors, or the local 
chief than about the monotonous and protracted labour of propelling 
the canoes. The rhythm of the paddles provides the framework of the 
song. The binary measure in the song matches the twofold structure 
of the paddle strokes — first a strong beat corresponding to the tension 
of the muscles and sweep of the paddles, further marked by the beat of 
an accompanying gong or drum; and secondly a relatively feeble beat 
while the paddles rest. These paddle songs are sometimes by a soloist 
echoed by a chorus but, unlike the Chikunda examples, they are more 
often sung by the whole crew, preceded and accompanied by the beat of 
a drum. Consonant with this pattern the words are short and simple in 
the extreme. The song 

Ekouloulou, qui rames incessamment; 
Ekouloulou, qui rames incessamment; 
Ekouloulou, qui rames incessamment . . . 
(Ekululu jaboluka ntek' . . .) 

repeated over and over in unison is one of the few to refer to the actual 
work— the crew compare themselves to the little ekululu fish that is always 
swimming. (Tanghe 1926-28: 830; 832) Even simpler are the words which 
alternate between solo and chorus: 

Solo. Les herbes Chorus. Oye 

Solo. Les herbes Chorus. Oye (Tanghe 1926-28: 830; 836) 


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230 Oral Literature in Africa 


Solo. Chef, o, Chorus. Waza waza 

Chef, e, Waza waza 

Ventre, e, Waza waza 

Fusil, e, Waza waza 

Malle, e, Waza waza 

Sel, e . . . . Waza waza . 

(Tanghe 1926-8: 830) 

The structure is also simple, and, like many such songs, depends 
fundamentally on various types of repetition: repetition of the same formula 
(with or without a pause); repetition with a slight variation the second time 
through; and alternation and repetition of two different phrases, sometimes 
with variation. They are sung in a slow, monotonous, and plaintive way, 
repeated over and over in uniform and regular measure, with the low and 
constant accompaniment of gong or drum in the background. Each song is 
brought to an end by a long-drawn-out final note, followed by a long low 
note, not really part of the song itself. 

While most of these Mabale paddle songs are sung in unison, 
occasionally led by one of the paddlers, there is also sometimes a 
specialist singer. This is a young man with a reputation for both his voice 
and his repertoire of songs who comes specially to sing and is exempt 
from paddling. He may sing in alternation with chorus, but sometimes 
performs freely on his own, a situation which is held to lead to the best 
songs of all. Yet even here, it seems, the words themselves are relatively 
unimportant. What matters is the regular repetition that stimulates and 
eases the effort of paddling: 

Helas, mon enfant; 

Helas, je le pleure; 

Helas, avec douleur; 

Saurais-je l'oublier, helas. 24 (Ibid. 831; 838) 

Helas, mere; 

Helas, mere; 

Un homme est tombe; 

Un homme est mort . . , 25 (Ibid.: 830). 

The occasions mentioned so far all involve rhythmic work by a group of 
people in co-operation. But there are also solitary work songs. Grinding 

24 Two soloists. 

25 One soloist. 


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8. Special Purpose Poetry— War, Hunting, and Work 231 

corn, for instance, though sometimes done by several women, is also 
often performed by one woman alone. This is a situation that gives 
scope to the expression of more personal feelings, uttered at greater 
length, than in the group songs. Thus a Kamba woman's grinding song 
is concerned with her own experiences. She was married to a man 
employed at a German Leipzig Mission Station, a place with large 
whitewashed buildings that she compares to the hills. She had once said 
she never wished to set foot in a mission station, but even so she has 
now left her parents and come to live here at the 'master's' (missionary's) 

Let me be! Let me grind my flour in peace and recover from my grief! 

You tell me that I have now neither people nor mother. 

Although I once said that I would never come to these 'hills', 

Yet I have come here to build my hut at the master's (place). 

These high hills, they shine like the seeds of the kivuti 26 tree, or like coins. 

I am tending my father's roaming bull. (Lindblom iii, 1934: 48-9) 

A similar personal comment is evident in a Sotho domestic song, the lament 
of a woman whose man is away: 

Far, far away at Molelle's place, 

Where is the train going? 

He has been away at the mines too long. 

I, poor child, always say that. 

I have lost my relatives 

And have no one to tell me what to do. (A/r. Music 2, 2, 1959: 76) 

The various types of work songs can be seen to shade into songs for 
dancing, for in each case the singing accompanies rhythmic movement. 
The difference, obviously, is that dance movements are not regarded as 
monotonous or laborious. But even so there is some overlap between the 
two, with 'work songs' also functioning as, or following the pattern of, 
dance songs. Thus the Swahili truck-pushing song quoted above has all 
the characteristics of an up-country ngoma (dance) song (Werner 1927: 102). 
Some tasks, furthermore, are carried out in a half-dancing manner, so that, 
as with the Limba threshing songs, the work becomes attractive and artistic 
rather than merely laborious, and the song a background to a kind of dance 
as well as to labour. 

26 Large red seeds with black spots. 


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232 Oral Literature in Africa 

This discussion of work songs has already involved some mention of 
their style. Since they typically accompany collective rhythmical movement, 
it is not surprising that a common form is that of leader and chorus. The 
chorus words tend to be particularly simple, often meaningless — iyo, ayo, 
ye ye, etc.— or involve repetition from the solo part. The soloist has more 
scope to develop or improvise his words, particularly when, as sometimes 
happens, he is not expected to take part in the work directly but can 
concentrate on his singing (and on the musical accompaniment or even 
dancing that he is also at times responsible for). But even so, the wording of 
these songs is usually simple. Typically the leader only sings a line or two 
of his own before his words are taken up by the chorused refrain brought 
in by the rhythm of the work, and there is little opportunity for elaboration 
of the verbal content. The structure of a Southern Rhodesian work song 
recorded by Tracey is characteristic in this respect. The poetry of the words 
results in a carefully balanced piece of verse, but the words themselves 
have little significance: 

Chorus. Herende hi ho hi haiwa, hiho gore we hi haiwa (no meaning) 
Solo. The girls have got their dancing beads on (i.e. this is a joyful occasion) 

Chorus. Ye wo ye (oh, yes!), they've got their dancing beads on . . . 

(Tracey 1929: 100) 

It is the rhythm and the melody, not the words, that are the most striking 
aspects of these songs. The rhythm of the work provides the fixed 
framework within which the song must be developed, a framework that 
is likely to continue for a long period of time during which the song (and 
the work) is repeated again and again. The importance of the rhythmical 
aspect is brought out further by the cases — which are beyond our scope 
here — where complicated percussion is the main element of interest in 
accompanying, the work. This sometimes takes precedence over or even 
altogether replaces the words, and may be by drums, hammers, or even 
the regular sequence of blows used by shipworkers in Dar-es-Salaam 
as they hammer the rust off the steel sides of the ships — 'producing a 
pleasant effect which no doubt assists them in the performance of their 
monotonous task' (Tracey 1957: 82). In the songs the words are punctuated 
and framed by rhythmical effort— by hauling at the net in Ewe fishing 
songs, strokes of the hoe or flail in Limba farming songs, paddle strokes 
in canoe songs. It is this that provides their main structure and conditions 
their style. 


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8. Special Purpose Poetry— War, Hunting, and Work 233 

Figure 17. Limba women's daily task of pounding the rice for their 

favourite food is often lightened by song, often heard (and learned) by the 

babies tied to their backs, 1961 (photo Ruth Finnegan). 

Work songs stand out from others in their directly functional relationship to 
the activity they accompany. Occasionally they appear as a separate art form 
for sophisticated audiences, 27 but normally they are inextricably involved 
with the work itself. This is particularly true of songs accompanying 
collective work. The joint singing co-ordinates the action and leads the 
workers to feel and work as part of a co-operating group, not as separate 

27 e.g. the Ganda paddle songs performed at court (Roscoe 1911: 37). 

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234 Oral Literature in Africa 

individuals. Such co-operation may be essential to the job in hand (e.g. in 
hauling, paddling, and other tasks which depend on exact joint timing), 
but even where this is not essential, as in hoeing or road work, the rhythm 
of the song still encourages collaboration and control within the group, a 
pressure on all to take part equally within the given rhythmic framework. 
The function of rhythmical music in encouraging people to work harder, 
faster, and with more enjoyment has frequently been noted. Work songs can 
also comment on life in general, on local events, or on local characters, and 
can express ideas of love, friendship, or even obscenity (Evans-Pritchard 
1929). In short, work songs lighten the labour and give an opportunity, 
however limited, for poetic and musical expression in the midst of work. 28 
Such songs seem to occur throughout Africa. Their detailed words and 
form, however, have not been extensively recorded by either linguists 
or sociologists who have tended to leave this field to musicologists. 29 
However, it may be that the same characteristics which have led to 
this partial neglect— their relatively slight verbal element, their close 
association with work, and their musical quality— are precisely those 
which encourage the continuing development of such songs so that they 
fit new as well as older types of work. This kind of song, probably unlike 
military and hunting poems, is likely to remain a continuing source for 
the student of oral literature. 

28 For a further general discussion of work songs, see Brakeley 1949, also Jones 1959: 39ff. 
(Ewe) and Wilson 1966: 77. 

29 Musicologists have made many recordings of such songs, particularly in Central Africa; 
the words, however, are often not published with these recordings. 


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9. Lyric 

Occasions. Subject Matter. Form. Composition. 

In the sense of 'a short poem that is sung', lyric is probably the most 
common form of poetry in subsaharan Africa. It is not always recognized 
that these songs, in which the musical element is of such obvious 
importance, are in fact poems. It is true that the verbal aspect sometimes 
appears less developed than in the lengthy poems that are delivered in 
spoken or recitative style, like some of the praise poems, hymns, or hunting 
chants that have already been described. But this should not prevent us 
from calling them poems. We should remember that classical Greek or 
Elizabethan lyrics were equally designed to be sung. Indeed, in its original 
form of a poem in a musical setting, lyric is one of the most important kinds 
of African oral literature. 

So far, with a few exceptions, 1 the poetry we have considered has 
mainly been associated with relatively formal events. The lyric songs 
discussed here are for more informal occasions. Whereas much other poetry 
depends on a specialist and even esoteric tradition, these involve popular 
participation. The verbal content of these songs tends to be short (though 
the actual performance may be lengthy) and is often ephemeral. There is 
usually plenty of improvisation. Unlike the general pattern of Western 
European folk-songs, the individual singer does not tend to stand out in 
a dominant position as against a passive audience, 2 but instead interacts 
with a chorus. Yet these lyric songs still provide wide scope for individual 

1 In particular the work song which could have been treated under the present heading. 

2 See Lomax 1962 on the general contrasts in this respect between Africa, Europe, the 
Orient etc. 


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236 Oral Literature in Africa 


Songs appear in an almost unlimited number of contexts. In words that 
might be applied more widely than to the Ibo of whom he was writing, 
Osadebay speaks of the 'wealth of culture and fine feelings which find 
expression in our music and poetry. We sing when we fight, we sing when 
we work, we sing when we love, we sing when we hate, we sing when a 
child is born, we sing when death takes a toll' (Osadebay 1949: 154). 

Rites de passage are very common occasions for singing. There are songs 
associated with birth, with initiation and puberty, betrothal, marriage, 
acquiring a new title or status, and funeral and memorial celebrations. The 
most serious of these songs, in which the verbal element is elaborated at 
length, cannot be called lyrical. But often such ceremonies are in fact more 
an occasion for festivity, which includes song, than a solemn ritual with 
specially designated music, and the gatherings normal at these times are a 
reason for singing for its own sake. 

Weddings, for example, are popular occasions for comment in song— by 
no means always involving praise of the newly wedded pair: 

Serpent que hi es! 

Chien que tu es! 

Tu fais: oua-oua! (Junod 1897: 46) 

sing the bride's friends about her husband among the Ronga, amid a series 
of songs cheerfully warning her of the ill-treatment she will without doubt 
receive at the hands of his parents. In more reflective and personal style is 
the Ganda song of farewell by the young girl about to be married, with the 
repetitions typical of this form: 

Oh, I am gone, 

Oh, I am gone, 

Call my father that I may say farewell to him, 

Oh, I am gone. 

Father has already sold me, 

Mother has received a high price for me, 

Oh, I am gone. (Sempebwa 1948: 18) 3 

It is likely that advantage will be taken of this opportunity to sing songs on 
many other topics. 

3 For other examples of marriage songs see e.g. Beaton 1935 (Bari); Leslau 1947 (Harari), 
Dufays 1909 (Ruanda). 


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9. Lyric 237 

Many of these songs are for dancing. A particular song type is 
sometimes inextricably tied up with a particular dance. Thus the 
Swahili used to have a special gungu song for the 'pounding figure' of 
the dance: 

Give me a chair that I may sit down and hold (the guitar) 

Let me sing a serenade for my Palm-daughter 

Let me sing for my wife 

She who takes away my grief and sorrow. 

(Knappert 1966: 130; cf. Steere 1906: 47) 

This occasion for song is, if anything, increasing, and many examples could 
be quoted like the Zulu 'town dancing songs' quoted by Tracey, where the 
words are subordinate to the dance: 

This is the girl that jilted me, 

The wretch of a girl that jilted me. 

At Durban, the dance leaders are afraid of us! (Tracey 1948b: 61) 4 

Zululand, my home, I love you. 
Goodbye, Willie I like you too. 
We are the boys. (Ibid.: 66) 5 

The same kind of mood, of recreation and light-hearted enjoyment, is 
evident in many of the 'drinking songs'. These too, for all their lightness, 
may express the thought in true lyric manner, with economy and grace. In 
a Shona drinking song, the original is only seven words in all: 

Keep it dark! 

Don't tell your wife, 

For your wife is a log 

That is smouldering surely! 
Keep it dark! (Tracey 1933, no. 9) 

There are sometimes more formalized occasions for the singing of lyrics. 
One could mention the recent interest in the short balwo lyric among the 
Somali 6 . Special balwo parties became fashionable in the towns. People 
would recite the lyrics they knew or compose new ones, and the recitations 
would be interrupted for tea and conversation (Andrzejewski 1967: 11). 

i.e. a boast by the Johannesburg) dancers that no one can dance better than they— their 

reputation has even reached Durban! 

Nearly all collections of poems include some dance songs. See also Stappers 1954; 

Emsheimer 1937 (not seen); Beaton 1940, 1938; v. Funke 1920-1; Clark 1965; Traore 1942; 

Littmann 1926; Vansina 1955; Nketia 1957. 

On which see below. 


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238 Oral Literature in Africa 

Popular and occasional bands among the Akan also sometimes perform on 
specifically recreational occasions (Nketia 1962: 16-17; 1963fr: Ch. 6). Again, 
in many areas the radio nowadays frequently creates opportunities for 
lyrics to be performed. 

All over the continent it is a common pattern for stories to be interrupted 
from time to time by a song, usually led by the storyteller, while the 
audience act as his chorus. 7 Sometimes these songs amount to quite long 
poems, and are then often in recitative. Short verses are also very common, 
sometimes with many nonsense syllables to fill in the rhythm and tune, 
with repetition over and over again between leader and chorus. One Limba 
story, about 'The clever cat', has a verse of this kind: 

The story is about a cat who proposes to initiate the young rat maidens into 
the bondo (women's society). They, like all young girls, are eager to enter- 
but the cat's one desire is to have a chance of eating them! The cat pretends 
to act in the usual way of a bondo senior woman. She lines them all up and 
leads the singing, telling them not to look round. She sings: 

When we go, 

Let no one look behind oh! 

When the cat is free, fo fen. 

The chorus of young rats take up the same words: 

When we go, 

Let no one look behind oh! 

When the cat is free, fo fen 

in the way young initiates do in real life. The rhythmic and melodic song is 
repeated in the story perhaps eight or ten times, first by the cat (the narrator), 
then by the rat initiates (the audience) who have quickly picked up the tune. 
But while the singing is going on, what the cat is really doing is to quietly 
pick off the rats one by one as they sing with their backs to her. At last only 
one is left, still singing the song. Just in time, she looks round, and throws 
herself out of the way and escapes (for the full story see Finnegan 1967: 

A story like this appeals to its audience partly because of the amusing form 
of words and the parody of the usually very serious initiation ceremony, 
but perhaps most of all because of the attractive song which, in terms of 
the time spent repeating it over and over, took up as long as the prose 
narrative. Simple as the words were in themselves, the audience all joined 
in enthusiastically, overlapping slightly with the leader's last note and half 

7 On the function of songs in stories see Ch. 13: 385. Also Belinga 1965: 55ff. 


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9. Lyric 239 

dancing as they sang; they would, it seemed, have continued indefinitely 
had not the leader finally broken into their response to continue his narration. 
The same song is sometimes repeated at different points in the story, 
a kind of signature tune with slight variations on the words to fit the 
development of the plot. The structure of the story is thus marked by the 
recurrence of the song in each new episode. Another Limba example can 
make this plain: 

The plot is the intentionally fantastic and humorous one of the hero Sara and 
his endeavours to kill and eat a guinea-fowl he had caught without sharing it 
with any of his friends. But the bird is a magical one and the more Sara tries to 
kill and eat it, going through all the usual preparations and cooking procedures, 
the more it sings back at him. At last he eats it— but even in his stomach the 
bird sings and demands to be excreted; and in the final effort, Sara dies. 

Each of the many parallel stages of the plot is marked by the same song, 
with variations to suit the event, the last phrase and response being repeated 
several times by narrator and audience with the same tune throughout. 
First, the guinea-fowl is discovered in the snare, and it sings: 

Sara is coming to loose me, 

Sara is coming to loose me. 

Here he found a path, a night passed, 

Here he came and put a snare for me, 

The guinea-fowl, 

The guinea-fowl, 

Ko de ba ko naligbe s 

What is your name? 

What is your name? 

(Response) Tambarenke, Tambarenke. 
What is your name? 

Tambarenke, Tambarenke. 
What is your name? 

Tambarenke, Tambarenke . . ., etc. 

Sara looses the bird from the noose, and brings it home to prepare for 
eating. Again the bird sings: 

Sara is coming to pluck me, 

Sara is coming to pluck me. 

Here he found a path, a night passed, 

Here he came and put a snare for me, 

The guinea-fowl, 

8 Apparently nonsense words. 


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240 Oral Literature in Africa 

The guinea-fowl, 
Ko de ba ko nagligbe 
What is your name? 
What is your name? 

Tambarenke, Tambarenke. 
What is your name? 

Tambarenke, Tambarenke .... 

As the story continues, new first lines appear: 

Sara is coming to cut me up . . . 

Sara is coming to pound me . . . 9 

Sara is coming to mould me . . . 

Sara is coming to put me in (to the pot) . . . 

Sara is coming to take me out . . . 

Sara is coming to eat me . . . 

Sara is going to lie down .... 

And, finally, 

Sara is going to excrete me . . . 

(Full story in Finnegan 1967: 284-90) 

The linguistic content of songs in Limba stories, as in some others, is ^k 

relatively limited, and for the audience their main interest lies in the 
rhythm and melody and the fact that they can participate in the singing. In 
some other cases, however, such as some Akan stories, the words are more 
developed. The following is a variation on a very common theme: 

Elephant and Antelope are said to have made very good friends in the 
forest. Elephant being the stronger and wealthier of the two was able to 
lay on sumptuous meals every day to which he invited Antelope. One day 
he expressed the desire to visit Antelope in his house. This embarrassed 
Antelope for he also wanted to give him a good meal. It occurred to him 
after failing to get any meat that Mother Antelope was the answer, so he 
caused her to be killed and used. When Elephant arrived he was greatly 
surprised by the delicious meal and asked to see Mother Antelope. But 
Antelope succeeded in putting this off. After the meal however, Elephant 
again asked for Mother Antelope and Antelope replied in a song as 

Elephant, please don't worry me. 

Have you ever seen a poor man 

And a wealthy man exchange things equally? 

Elephant Akwaa Brenkoto that commands his destiny, 

9 Meat is often pounded in a mortar, then moulded into balls. 


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9. Lyric 241 

Elephant that plucks the tops of trees on his right, 
King of musketry, father and king, 

Birefi Akuampon, mighty one to whom all stray goods are sent to be used. 
Yes; let us proceed, 
Mother Antelope, I have stewed her. 
Yes, let us proceed. 

Mother Antelope, I have used her to redeem myself. Yes, let us proceed. 

(Nketia 1958/?: 19) 


The subjects of the many different songs sung on these various occasions 
include just about every topic imaginable. There are songs about wives, 
husbands, marriage, animals, chiefs, this year's tax, the latest football 
match, a recent intrigue, the plight of a cripple dependent on his family, an 
amusing incident, a friend's treachery or an enemy's vices, the relationship 
between variety in the human and the natural world— and so on according 
to the genre of song involved, the context of performance, and the poetic 
inspiration of the singer. 

It has frequently been remarked that African poems about nature are 
few and far between, and there is truth in this assertion. Certainly there 
seems to be little in common between most African lyrics and the romantic 
interest in 'Nature' typical of certain epochs of the English poetic tradition, 
and lyrics about people, events, and personal experience are more common. 
But observation of the natural world, especially the animal world is often 
significant. Take the simple little song about a brook recorded in Malawi in 
the nineteenth century. The effect is an imitation of the sound of the brook 
and it is sung 'softly and soothingly' in a subdued voice; the main point 
is to reflect the tune of the water rather than describe in words, though a 
picture is given of the bank of the little stream (chiko) and the prickly bush 
that grows by it (likwanya): 

1st voice. Likwanya likunyanya ku chiko. 

Response. Anyanyale. 

(Simultaneously) 1 st voice Likwanya likunyanya ku chiko 

2 nd voice Anya nya-nya-nya-le e. 

Then the two voices interchange lines twice, with the final response: 

Anyanyale. (Macdonald i, 1882: 49) 

Again, we could mention the case of Somali poetry which 'is imbued with 


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242 Oral Literature in Africa 

a consciousness of the beauties and cruelties of nature' (Andrzejewski 
1967: 9). For instance, the simple lyric 'O Distant Lightning! Have you 
deceived me?' 2 gains its emotive tone from the inspiration of rain and 
its life-giving and beautiful results. Lightning often presages rain, and 
this symbolizes hope. But sometimes the hope is disappointed and the 
rain-clouds move away. So here the poet is writing of love, but calls the 
girl 'Distant Lightning', expressing his disappointment in love in terms of 
natural forces. 

Songs associated with birds are very common. Sometimes the song is 
envisaged as sung by the bird itself, and at least in part is an onomatopoeic 
representation of the call. We could instance the many lyrics supposed to 
be sung and exchanged by birds among the Beti of the Cameroons. The 
ngiai afan (genderme silvatique) sings of the insecurity of life: 

Point de securite en foret. (Mvie e se a fie. 

Point de securite en foret. Mvie a se fie). (Anya-Noa 1965: 129) 

The female kolvodo ban nga (magpie) in one of her songs praises the virtues 
of work: 

Va au travail. (Kel' esie o. 

Va au travail. Kel' esie o. 

Si tu entends dire: O wog na: 

'C'est une fille d'homme' 'Ngon mot' 

C'est grace au travail. H'esie. 

Si tu entends dire: O wog na: 

'C'est une fille d'homme' 'Ngon mot' 

C'est grace au travail. H'esie. 

Le pays serait-il genereux, Nnam akab, 

Ne sois pas quemandeur. Te bo zaq. 

Le pays serait-il genereux, Nnam akab, 

Ne sois pas quemandeur. Te bo zaq.) (Anya-Noa 1965: 124-5) 

The Zulu songs attributed to birds attempt to represent something of 
the nature and appearance of the bird as well as its cry— and cast a sly 
glance at humanity too. The bird called uthekivane (hammerkop or heron) 
is pictured strolling gracefully by the waterside, with his fine-looking crest 
and shapely thighs— symbolizing vanity: 

I myself, have often said: — Thekwane\ You, with your crest, your leisurely 
strolling when frequenting the spring, at the time it has been opened up — 
mark you as a very fine fellow. You have large thighs. (Dunning 1946: 44) 

Other Zulu bird songs involve interchange between the hen and the cock, 


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9. Lyric 243 

the male in deep bass, the hen higher. The song of the insingizi (hornbill or 
turkey-buzzard) is really a comment on married life, particularly the last 
line of the cock's exhausted rejoinder to his wife's constant nagging: 

Hen. Where, where is (the) meat? Where, where is (the) meat? 

Cock. There's none, it's up in the trees above (bis) 

Hen. Where, where are the worms? (bis) 

Cock. There are none, there are no worms (bis) 

Hen. Are there none, are there none over there? (bis) 

Cock. Oh! get away with you! Where will I get them from? (bis) 

Hen. Look for them, look for them over there (bis) 

Cock. There are none, there are none over there (bis) 

Hen. I am going, I am going, I am going home to my people (bis) 

Cock. Go, go, you have long since said so (bis). (Dunning 1946: 33) 

Most elaborate of all is the song of self-assertion attributed to the iqola, 

the fiscal shrike. In it the cock utters his proverbial cries of 'Goshi! Goshi! 

Dadi! Dadi!', cries which are supposed to describe the sounds made by the 

movements of his wings and feet as well as the ejaculations he utters as 

part of his great display. He is pictured as turning his head to the right, then 

to the left, surveying himself in self-admiration. His cry really amounts to 

saying T am the personification of everything that is Majestic and Powerful ^} 

and my ornaments jingle and rattle in perfect rhythm'. He sings: 

Goshi! Goshi! Dadi! Dadi! 

Who do I kill (stab)? Who do I kill? Who do I kill? 

I kill the relations of these (indicating his victims) outright! outright! 

I kill the relations of these outright! outright! 

I kill the relations of these outright! outright! 

Sanxokwe, Sanxokwe (addressing her Majesty) 
I'll pay your bridewealth (lobola) with a red beast 
I'll pay your bridewealth with a red beast 
I'll pay your bridewealth with a red beast. 

When men drink beer, they become intoxicated, 

They take up their sticks 

And they (the sticks) clashing together sound xakaxaka, xakaxaka, xakaxaka. 

I have been across the Umdawane lc 

Where I ate up the big dance. 11 

I caught a small bird,I fixed it on the end of a slender twig very early this 

10 A fabulous river. 

11 i.e. won all the prizes. 


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244 Oral Literature in Africa 

I repeated this by catching a Fantail Warbler early this morning 
And fixed it on the end of a slender twig. 
I drank the blood of a bird early this morning. 

I struck its little stomach, it became red with blood at that very moment, 
Because I am the King of Birds. 

Goshi! Goshi! Dadi! Dadi! 

Bayede! Bayede! (Salute me royally) Khuleka! Khulekal (Make obeisance to me) 

Nkosi! Nkosil [Address me as] King! (Dunning 1946: 45-6) 12 

Finally, in a rather different style, is the brief but pathetic Nyanja song of 
the unloved night-jar: 

Moon, you must shine, shine that I may eat the tadpoles; 

I sit on a stone, and my bones all rattle. 

If it were not for my big mouth, 

The maidens would be crying for me. (Rattray 1907: 164) 

Songs about, or attributed to, animals seem to be less common than those 
associated with birds. But some certainly exist particularly in South and 
Central Africa. The brief Hottentot song about a baboon gives a vivid little 
picture of his typical occupation: 

There, I've got you, I've got you, I've got you . . . 

Crack, crack, what a louse . . . 

It bit me, what a louse . . . 

Crack, crack, what a louse . . . 

It bit me, what a louse . . . (Stopa 1938: 101) 

and is cast in the typical form of a sung lyric, with plenty of scope for 
repetition and, apparently, for chorus responses. Among the South African 
Bantu the tradition of praising seems still strong, and recent praises 
(although strictly of a different order from the songs quoted in this 
chapter) are much more simple and lyrical in concept than the lengthy 
and grandiose praises of traditional culture. Thus Hurutshe men describe 
a hare: 

Ga-re-ya-gaa-koo\ 13 

Son of the little dark brown one with spots, 

Little yellow one, leaper from the stubbles, 

12 The line division is not quite clear in the text and I may have interpreted it incorrectly in 

13 The shout given when the hare jumps up from its lair. 


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9. Lyric 245 

Yonder is the son of the little dark brown one 

Leaper from the treeless plain 

Leaper from the trunks of trees; 

It leaps up, and stretches its tail 

And it places its ears on its shoulders 

Ga-re-ya-gaa-kool (Merwe 1941: 328-9) 14 

Among pastoral peoples, songs are often composed and sung in praise of 
individual beasts. Cattle come to mean far more to their owners than mere 
economic sustenance, and are accepted as emotional and evocative topics 
for deeply felt expression. This can be seen in the songs collected by recent 
investigators from the Nilotic cattle-keeping people, and also from a Dinka 
song published early in the century. The individual singer typically praises 
his own bull in an outpouring of personal pride: 

My Bull is as white as the silvery fish in the river; as white as the egret on the 

river bank; as white as new milk. 
His bellowing is like the roar of the Turk's cannon from the great river. 
My bull is as dark as the rain-cloud, that comes with the storm. 
He is like Summer and Winter; half of him dark as the thundercloud; half of 

him as white as sunshine. 
His hump shines like the morning star. 
His forehead is as red as the arum's [hornbill] wattles. His forehead is like a 

banner; seen by the people from afar. 
He is like the rainbow. 
I shall water him at the river, and drive 
My enemies from the water with my spear. 
Let them water their cattle at the well; 
The river for me and my bull. 
Drink, O Bull, of the river. Am I not here with 
My spear to protect you? (Cummins 1904: 162) 

But songs describing animals, or even birds, are apparently far less 
common than those in which the main interest is human life. In fact this 
can be seen even in many of the songs ostensibly about birds, for the bite 
of the comment is often its veiled relevance for human action, character, 
aspiration, or absurdity. There are lyrics about every facet of human 
activity. Love and marriage are probably the commonest themes, and the 
remainder of this section will illustrate some of these songs. 

14 Animal songs also occur in Central Africa (Lamba) where they bear some resemblance to 
Southern Bantu prises (Doke 1934: 365). 


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246 Oral Literature in Africa 

Marriage is a topic that can be treated many different ways. Not only 
its attractions are indicated in song, but also its difficulties or absurdities. 
Thus one of the Ganda songs connected with marriage lightly warns young 

When he sees a pretty girl he falls for her, 
T will go with you, let us go.' 
Not knowing that he is going with a girl with a fiery temper. 

(Sempebwa 1948: 17) 

Among the Shi of the Eastern Congo, again, marital relationships are the 
most common single subject in songs, many of them concerned with marital 
and pre-marital strife. One of the popular forms is a song describing a girl's 
rejection of her suitor because she thinks him too poor: 

'You want to marry me, but what can you give me? 
A nice field?' 
'No, I have only a house.' 

'What? You have nothing but a house? How would we live? Go to Bukavu; 
there you can earn plenty of money. You can buy food and other things.' 
'No, I won't go. I don't know the people there. I have always lived here, and 
I know the people and want to stay here.' 

'You are a stupid man. You want me to marry me but you have nothing. If 
you don't go to Bukavu and earn money to buy me things then I won't marry 
you'. (Merriam 1954: 45) 

A different point of view is expressed in one of the many Chopi songs 
on this subject. Here the girl is pictured as sad and solitary without her 
husband; like so many others he has gone off many hundreds of miles to 
work in the mines. And yet there is something in common— a comment on 
a woman's demand for material possessions: 

I am most distressed, 

I am most distressed as my man has gone off to work, 

And he does not give me clothes to wear, 

Not even black cloth. (Tracey 1948a: 46) 

The number of love songs recorded is surprising — at least to those 
brought up to the idea that the concept of personal love is bound to be 
lacking in African cultures. Even the idea of courtly and romantic love 
is not always absent. It seems, for instance, to occur to some extent 
among the Hausa, whose rich tradition of love poetry is now influencing 


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9. Lyric 247 

surrounding people. 15 Fletcher quotes a simple Hausa song of love, 'To 
Dakabo, a maiden': 

Dakabo is tin! 

Dakabo is copper! 

Dakabo is silver! 

Dakabo is gold! 

Where greatness is a fortune 

The thing desired is (obtained only) with time. 

Thy things are my things, 

My things are thy things, 

Thy mother is my mother, 

My mother is thy mother, 

Thy father is my father, 

My father is thy father! 

Be patient, O maid! 

Be patient, young maiden! (Fletcher 1912: 65) 

The Somali balwo (later called heello) are even more striking examples of 
romantic and emotional love poetry (see especially Andrzejewski 1967). 
These are short lyric love poems that have become popular recently and 
are particularly associated with the new urban generation. The balwo is 
characterized by extreme brevity— it usually consists of only two lines— 
and a condensed and cryptic imagery expressed in 'miniature' form. It is 
sung to a distinct tune with syncopated rhythms, but there are relatively 
few of these tunes and thousands of different poems. There are two, related, 
themes in these lyrics: first, those addressed to a beloved woman, in hope 
of marriage; and secondly those to a woman admired from afar off, even 
one seen only once whom the poet can have little hope of seeing again. This 
theme of romantic and frustrated love gives rise, it seems, to genuine and 
deeply felt emotion, expressed in a condensed and symbolic form arising 
from one central image: 

Woman, lovely as lightning at dawn, 
Speak to me even once. 

I long for you, as one 

Whose dhow in summer winds 

Is blown adrift and lost, 

15 See Mayssal 1965: 81, on Hausa influence on the Cameroons Fulani. 


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248 Oral Literature in Africa 

Longs for land, and finds — 

Again the compass tells — 

A grey and empty sea. (Laurence 1954: 31) 

If I say to myself 'Conceal your love!' 
Who will conceal my tears? 

Like a tall tree which, fallen, was set alight, 

I am ashes. (Andrzejewski 1967: 13) 

My heart is single and cannot be divided, 

And it is fastened on a single hope; Oh you who might be the moon. 

(Andrzejewski and Lewis 1964: 146; also pp. 49-51) 

The romantic love poem is not just confined to the coast. The Nyamwezi of 
central Tanganyika around Tabora can sing: 

My love is soft and tender, 

My love Saada comforts me, 

My love has a voice like a fine instrument of music. (Tracey 1963: 20) 

Not all African love songs, however, are in the romantic, even ecstatic 
vein perhaps more typical of areas like Hausa country or the East Coast, 
long influenced by Arabic culture. There are many ways of describing 
this fertile theme. The Kuanyama Ambo of South West Africa have a 
series of brief antiphonal love poems used in courtship, with call and 
response between man and girl. Usually some analogy of a general 
rather than a personal kind is made between nature and human 

Where one sees birds in their flight, there is water; 

Where one hears the sound of women's laughter, there is a kraal. 

A palm stick bow does not like the rainy season (it warps); 
A woman fond of a man does not like to be among people. 

(Loeb 1950: 847, 848) 16 

An analogy with nature is also made in a very light-hearted love song by a 
young Soga in East Africa: 

All things in nature love one another. 

The lips love the teeth, 

The beard loves the chin, 

And all the little ants go 'brrr-r-r-r' together. (Tracey 1963: 20) 

16 Loeb's general interpretation, however, is highly doubtful. 


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9. Lyric 249 

Zulu love poetry often seems to be by women, a feature that has parallels 
elsewhere in Africa. Dhlomo gives one girl's song that is both realistic and 

Never shall I fall in love with a suckling. 

Joy, joy, O mother, this one sleeps unrealising. 
Never shall I fall in love with one who is no ladies' man. 

Joy, joy, O mother, this one sleeps unrealising. 
I would like to fall in love with a dashing he-man. 

Joy, joy, O mother, this one sleeps unrealising. 
Would love him-who-appears-and-causes-heart-aches! 

Joy, joy, O mother, this one sleeps unrealising. 
Yes, I would like a whirlwind of a man! 

Joy, joy, O mother, this one sleeps unrealising. (Dhlomo 1947: 7) 

In much more disillusioned vein is another Zulu love song, this time 
by an older woman living in Durban, where she runs her own small 
group of singers. The song expresses all her despair and the mundane 
yet heart-breaking aspects of parting: 

I thought you loved me, 

Yet I am wasting my time on you. 

I thought we would be parted only by death, 

But to-day you have disappointed me. 

You will never be anything. 

You are a disgrace, worthless and unreliable. 

Bring my things. I will put them in my pillow. 

You take yours and put them under your armpit. 

You deceived me. (Tracey 1948/?: 41) 

Among the Luo of Kenya, too, love songs are sung by women. The final 
examples of love poetry will be taken from their oigo lyrics, one of the many 
types of songs in Luo country. 17 These are love songs in a slightly different 
sense from the ones already quoted. 

The oigo are songs sung by young girls on their way to visit the young 
men they are courting. The girls walk to the hut where they are to be 
entertained by the men, by the light of the full moon. As they go, they 
sing these songs, individually or in groups, taking it in turns to sing the 
whole way. 'There was no formal order of singing; the more musically 
gifted girls or the more effusive took the leading part according to their 

17 I write in the present though in fact these songs are now a thing of the past. The 
description is taken from Owuor 1961. 


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250 Oral Literature in Africa 

mood' (Owuor 1961: 51). Meanwhile the young men are waiting, straining 
their ears for the first sounds of the song. When it is heard, one of them 
announces to the rest, at the top of his voice: 'The landing has taken place, 
they have arrived.' The girls come and are welcomed with gifts. And then 
the evening's entertainment proceeds, the men playing on reed flutes while 
the girls sing their oigo songs. 

These songs have their own special form. The tunes are simple and 
rather repetitive with an insistent rhythm. The most striking aspect is 
the singer's vocal style. 'The singer trills in a bird-like voice and conveys 
an impression of being possessed by the stream of song within her, 
breathless and helpless. The emotions expressed are often sorrowful and 
almost hysterical, yet the singer exults in her ability to sing endlessly 
like a bird' (Owuor 1961: 52). This distinctive style comes out, even in 
translation, in the following poem. The characteristic refrain, doree ree 
yo, is far more repetitive and appealing than can be represented in an 
English text: 

I am possessed, 

A bird bursting on high with the ree lament 

I am the untiring singer. 

Dear bird, let's sing in rivalry 

Our doree ree yo . . .; 

It is my wayward self, 

Singing in rivalry 

The doree ree yo; 

I am the untiring singer 

That rocks far-off Mombasa 

With the aree ree yo; 

It is the voice crying the doree 

That rocks far-off Nakuru; 

I am the compelling Ondoro drum, 

The bird bursting with the doree's plaintive tones; 

I am the untiring singer 

Choking herself with the doree ree yo. (Owuor 1961: 53) 

Sometimes the emphasis of the song is on the sorrow of the singer, or the 
way she is possessed by the song. At other times we are given a picture of 
another side of her nature — wilful and unpredictable, her impulsiveness 
breaking through the ordinary rules of behaviour. This comes out in one 
song that is arranged round the image of a family setting out, led by the 
favourite bull who symbolizes their unity. Impulsively, the girl runs ahead 


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9. Lyric 251 

to keep up with the animal, in spite of the pain in her chest from her 

Our bull is starting off for Holo, 
The Kapiyo clan have fine cattle. 
Our bull is starting off for Holo, 
The Kapiyo clan have fine cattle. 

Then the giggling one said, 

Then the playful one said, 

(How amusing) 

The impulsive ree singer 

Is a forest creature lamenting the pain in her chest; 

The forest creature lamenting the pain in her chest, 

The spirited one lamenting the pain in her chest, 

The giggling ree singer 

Is a forest creature lamenting the pain in her chest, 

The Nyagwe Gune lamenting the pain in her chest, 

The impulsive ree singer 

Is a forest creature lamenting the pain in her chest. 

Our bull is starting off for Holo, 

The Kapiyo have fine cattle; 

The Kadulo clan is a bull which starts off for Holo, v?p 

The Kapiyo have fine cattle. (Owuor 1961: 54) 

In these songs, a special picture of girlhood is presented. It is one which 
does not necessarily correspond in all ways to the reality, but forms a 
conventional part of this particular form of art: 

She lives in a dreamland, though much tempered by the idealised role she 
longs to fill in the community .... As with a bird, singing appears to be the 
natural outpouring of the life force itself. The prestige of clan and family 
depended not only on the prowess of its young men but also on the zealous 
way in which its women represented its interests in song and dance. For a 
group of girls the oigo was a means of announcing their presence and of 
differentiating themselves from the older married women; for an individual 
a way of expressing her idiosyncrasies (Owuor 1962: 52). 

I'm still complaining, 

Crying the ree ree ree, 

I'm still complaining, 

Ever tearful with the ree ree ree, 

I'm still complaining; 

The redo-singer's unceasing complaint, 

Scion of young women 

Still complaining, 


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252 Oral Literature in Africa 

Ever tearful with the ree ree ree, 
I'm still complaining. 

I am in love with the oigo; 

I cry the ree ree ree 

Infatuated with the oigo; 

The redo-singer's unceasing complaint 

Blasting Amimo's hearth 

With constant complaining; 

Ever tearful with the ree ree ree, 

I'm still complaining. 18 


Songs in Africa are very frequently in antiphonal form. That is, there is 
response of some kind between soloist and chorus, and the song depends 
on the alternation between the two parts. The role of the soloist (or 'cantor') 
is crucial. It is he who decides on the song, and when it should start and 
end. Even more important, he can introduce variations on the basic theme 
of the song in contrast to the part of the chorus, which is more or less fixed. 
In other cases, the soloist has complete scope to improvise his part of the 
verse as he chooses (apart perhaps from the very first line). This type of 
composition results in many impromptu and often ephemeral lyrics. 

Within the general antiphonal form, which has often been mentioned 
as one of the main characteristics of African song, there are several 
possible variations. This is partly a question of who the performers are. 
Sometimes, for instance, there is more than one cantor; two or even three 
may interchange verses with each other as well as with the accompanying 
chorus. In other special musical types, the singers take turns in leading 
the singing, or two answer each other's song. But, as will appear, even in 

18 Owuor 1962: 53. Other references on love songs include Tracey 1963: 19-20 (examples 
and general discussion); Knappert 1967a (Swahili); G. Schiirle and A. Klingenheben, 
'Afrilcanische Liebeslieder' (Duala and Zaramo), ZKS 3, 1913-14; Chadwicks iii, 1940: 
668ff . (Tuareg); E. Von Funke, 'Einige Tanz-und Liebeslieder der Haussa', ZES 1 1, 1920-1; 
Tescaroli 1961, Ch. 4 (Sudan); E. Cerulli, 'Poesie di guerra e di amore dei Galla', Arch, 
antrop. e etnol. 5, 1942 (reference in IAI Bib/. (A) by R. lones, North-East Africa, 1959: 
33)'; D. Earthy A Chopi Love-song', Africa 4, 1931. For other discussions or examples 
of 'lyrics' see J. Vansina, 'La chanson lyrique chez les Kuba', jeune Afrique 27, 1958; 
T. Tsala, 'Minlan mi mved (chants lyriques)', Recherches et etudes camerounaises 2, 1960 
(Beti); L. Longmore, 'Music and Song among the Bantu People in Urban Areas on the 
Witwatersrand', Afr. music Soc. Newsletter 1. 6, 1953; and references in following sections. 
For written Swahili forms see Knappert 1966: 128f., 136. 


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9. Lyric 253 

the most basic type (one leader/one chorus) there is scope for variety and 

One of the simplest forms, at first sight at least, and one that seems to 
occur widely in Africa, is repetition of two phrases between soloist and 
chorus. Nketia terms this pattern the 'call and response' form and shows 
how even this type of antiphony can be elaborated in actual performance 
(Nketia 1962: 28ff). 19 At its simplest level, one that occurs, for instance, 
in children's games or other action songs, there is merely a repeated 
interchange between leader and group, the first singing his own phrase 
(A), the chorus coming in with theirs (B). 20 But there are also more complex 

Various techniques of elaboration of the basic A-B form may be 
employed. Variations in text, in melody or both may be introduced in the 
cantor's phrase (A) while the balancing responsive phrase (B) sung by 
the chorus remains the same. Interest may be further enhanced by varying 
the beginning and ending point of the cantor's phrase in such a way as to 
make this part overlap with the chorus response. In addition to these, a 
little elaboration in the form of a short introduction based on the words 
of the song may be sung by the cantor or by a member of the chorus who 
wishes to start a new song before the leading phrase (A) is begun. Examples 
of this will be found in the music of kple worship of the Ga people. It is also 
greatly exploited in Adangme klama music (Ibid.: 29). 

Songs founded on this type of repetition are basically short, though the 
actual repetitions may be drawn out almost indefinitely. Further extensions 
of the basic principle are also common. One might be built up on a kind of 
sequential pattern so that A and B are repeated at different levels, resulting 
in a form of A B A 1 B 1 . The complete unit (now of four sections, or even of 
six, eight, or more) can be repeated several times over. In this type too the 
cantor is at liberty to introduce slight variations, melodic or textual. The 
words of the chorus usually remain the same, though in some elaborations 
they are changed while the cantor's part stays the same. As can be seen, 
many other combinations are also possible — like, for instance, the A 1 B, 
A 2 B, A 3 B pattern of many Limba songs. 

All these elaborations of the 'call and response' pattern basically involve 
the balance of sections sung by leader and chorus against each other, and 

19 I draw heavily on Nketia's analysis here: though he is working primarily on Ghanian 
music, his analysis has a wider application; see also Rycroft 1967. 

20 The children's singing games quoted in Ch. 11 include some examples of this basic form. 


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254 Oral Literature in Africa 

depend essentially on repetition. This raises the problem of how the song 
is ended. Sometimes the end is abrupt and the leader simply stops; but at 
other times he joins in the chorus response, often with a prolonged final 
note. In other songs there is a special closing refrain. 

Another type of antiphonal collaboration between leader and chorus is 
the 'solo and chorused refrain' (Nketia 1962: 30-1). In songs of this pattern 
there is not the same balanced alternation between the two parts. Instead 
the soloist merely introduces the song. The cantor might sing the entire 
verse of the song right through once, and this is then repeated by the chorus. 
An example of this is the simple but effective Ghanaian song: 

I sleep long and soundly; 

Suddenly the door creaks. 

I open my eyes confused, 

And find my love standing by. 

Mother Adu, I am dying. 

Adu, kinsman of Odurowa, 

What matters death to me? (Nketia 1963a: 37) 21 

In the Ewe nyayito dance songs, in which new words are continually being 
composed, the first cantor sings the whole song through unaccompanied. 
By singing in a dramatic tone he can encourage people to join the dance 
(Jones 1959: 75). In other cases, the cantor sings only a short introductory 
phrase, and the chorus then sings the main song. The form is highly flexible: 

When the cantor has sung through, he may sing a short leading phrase 
before the chorus comes in. This leading phrase may also be added to a 
cantor's introduction. Further, the main chorus refrain can be interrupted 
by a cantor at appropriate points .... Furthermore a number of cantors may 
take turns at leading the chorus. Either of them may sing an introductory 
phrase before the chorus comes in, or they may take turns at leading each 
new verse. Sometimes cantors singing in twos are encountered. All these 
show that this form is flexible, and that there is room for building up 
complex sectional patterns on the basis of the singing roles taken by the 
participants. (Nketia 1962: 31) 

There are other possible variants. There are various combinations of the 
two main types described, including songs like the well-known Adangme 
klama, which open with an introductory section by the cantor sung in 
free rhythm, followed by a section in strict tempo with a solo lead and 
chorus refrain (or overlapping solo and chorus parts), repeated three or 

21 The emotion of love is, as often in Akan poetry likened to that of suffering and death. 


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9. Lyric 255 

more times; each new stanza can then be treated in much the same way 
as the song proceeds (Nketia 1958a: 28). Sometimes basically solo songs in 
declamatory style are supplemented by a chorus or instrumental addition 
(Nketia 1962: 31). In other songs the antiphony is between two soloists 
rather than solo and chorus. Thus the Kassena-Nankani of northern Ghana 
have a special type of song in which a young man who wishes to sing the 
praises of a girl conventionally asks the assistance of a friend: this results in 
a kind of duet by the two men accompanied by gourd percussion (Nketia 
1962: 27). Alternatively the antiphony may be between two choruses. This 
is the common pattern, for instance, in the Limba women's song which 
accompanies the boys' gbondokale dance and involves almost endless 
repetition of only a few phrases. Another example is the Zulu wedding 
song where, after the leader has stated the theme, it is taken up first by 
the chorus of women, and then by the men who answer with a contrasting 
theme, overlapping with the women's singing (Cope 1959: 35). 

It is clear that the antiphonal form provides scope for far more flexibility, 
rich elaboration, and varied interpretation than is immediately apparent 
from the bald statement that this is the characteristic structure of African 
songs. It is also a most suitable form for the purposes to which it is put. 
It makes possible both the exploitation of an expert and creative leader, 
and popular participation by all those who wish or are expected to join in. 
The repetition and lack of demand on the chorus also make it particularly 
appropriate for dancing. Finally the balanced antiphony both gives the 
poem a clear structure and adds to its musical attractiveness. 

We must not, however, exaggerate the significance of this very common 
antiphonal type of song and thus overlook the fact that some songs are 
primarily for soloists only. Thus one of the song types recorded from 
Zambia, the impango, seems to be designed primarily for solo singing 
(Jones 1943: 11-12). Men among the Bushmen sing personal and plaintive 
songs as solos (Lomax 1962: 438-9); and certain types of songs — such as 
lullabies and sometimes love and herding songs — always tend to be sung 
by individuals. Such songs can develop the verbal content, unlike the 
antiphonal songs that normally seem to involve a lot of repetition. It is 
by no means always clear in the sources how far a song is in fact sung by 
chorus and leader and how far just by one person, because those taking 
down texts tend to avoid repetitious phrases and to transcribe the song as 
if it were sung by one person only. The Akan 'maiden songs' are a good 
example of how one could easily assume that there is only one singer. 
Nketia in fact, with characteristic precision, explains that these are sung by 


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256 Oral Literature in Africa 

groups of women, each taking it in turns to lead the verses of the song; in 
the case cited here the last three lines are sung by the chorus. But in most 
other sources this explanation would not be added and the words would 
have suggested a single singer. The song is in honour of a loved one: 

He is coming, he is coming, 

Treading along on camel blanket in triumph. 

Yes, stranger, we are bestirring ourselves. 

Agyei the warrior is drunk, 

The green mamba with fearful eyes. 

Yes, Agyei the warrior, 

He is treading along on camel blanket in triumph, 

Make way for him. 
He is coming, he is coming. 
Treading along on sandals (i.e. on men). 
Yes, stranger, we are bestirring ourselves. 
Adum Agyei is drunk. 
The Green Mamba, Afaafa Adu. 

Yes, Agyei the warrior, 

He is treading along on camel blanket in triumph, Make way for him. 

(Nketia 1958k 20; see also Nketia 1963b: 51) 

The musical side of these lyrics, unlike spoken or semi-chanted poetry, is 
of vital importance. The verbal expression and the melody of the song are 
interdependent. So much is clear— but beyond this there are many areas 
of uncertainty. For one thing, the relative weight given to melody and 
to verbal content seems to vary in different areas and between different 
genres of song. For instance, the work songs designed to accompany and 
lighten rhythmic labour lay little stress on the words, and much more on 
the melody and rhythm, while in love songs the words take on greater 
interest. Further, there seems to be no firm agreement among musicologists 
about how far, when discussing African lyrics, one can generalize about 
such matters as scale, melody structure, rhythm, and harmony; 22 few 
detailed studies have been published for particular areas. 23 

One point of interest is the question of the exact connection between 
spoken and sung tone, especially in the highly tonal languages characteristic 
of parts of Africa. Again, there is some controversy on this score, but it 

22 For recent general discussions, see Merriam 1962, 1965; Jones 1959, Ch. 9; Rouget 1961; 
Tracey 1964; Adande 1952; Nketia 1964. 

23 Though see Tracey 1948a (Chopi); Jones 1943, 1949 (Zambia), 1959 (Ewe); Nketia 1962 
(Ghana); Brandel 1961 (Central Africa); also further references in Merriam 1965 and 
Gaskin 1965. 


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9. Lyric 257 

seems clear that there is often a relationship between the tones of speech 
and the melody, so that the melodic pattern is influenced by linguistic 
considerations. This is well documented for some West African languages. 
The relationship seems to be flexible, with the possibility of variation and 
tone modifications. Nketia sums up the position for the several Ghanaian 
tone languages: 

What the intonation of a song text provides . . . are tone patterns or 
syllable relationships and not the actual melodic notes that are to be 
employed. We would not, in traditional Ghanaian music, expect a high 
tone always to be sung in the upper or middle compass, or a low tone in the 
middle or lower compass. Within each compass we would only expect the 
melodic working-out of high, mid and low tone relationships. The verbal 
intonation would not provide us with the beginning or ending tone, but 
it may guide the immediate direction of movement from the beginning 
tone or movement towards the ending tone .... The tonal relationship 
between words and melody is not rigid. It is flexible. While it is important 
to take the intonation curve into account so that the words of a song may 
be readily recognised, it must be emphasised that the 'art' of the song lies 
in the departures that are made from this guide where appropriate, on 
purely melodic grounds. Thus the use of ascending interlocking patterns 
or pendular movement where the intonation shows a descending trend, 
or the use of rising seconds where intonation is level belongs to the 'art' 
of the song. However, it would be as wrong to assume rigid relationship 
as it would be to conclude that because such deviations occur, the tones 
of words are unimportant in the construction of melodies (Nketia 1962: 
52). 24 Thus, although tone/melody relationships in these languages allow a 
certain degree of freedom, the link between the two is a complex one, and 
composition and extemporization demand a high degree of skill. 

A further vexed question is that of rhythm. The fundamental importance 
of rhythm in vocal as in other African music is widely accepted, but there 
is little agreement as to its exact structure. One helpful distinction is 
between songs in 'free' and those in relatively 'strict' rhythm (Ibid. 64). In 
the former songs (or portions of songs) the singing is not co-ordinated with 
any bodily rhythmic activity such as work or dancing. The very common 

24 Similar points have been made by other writers: e.g. on Ewe 'tone and tune' see Jones i, 
1959, Ch. 10; Igbo, Green 1948: 841, Wescott 1962; Yoruba, King 1961: 38ff.; Bantu generally, 
Westphal 1948; West Africa, Schneider 1961; Chopi, Tracey 1948a: 4-5; Ngala, Carrington 
1966/7 (reference in Africa 38, 1968: 110); also general discussion in Wangler 1963. 


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258 Oral Literature in Africa 

songs to strict time, however, have a beat that is articulated with dancing, 
rhythmic movement, percussion by instruments, or hand-clapping, all of 
which contribute to the form and attractiveness of the song. These rhythms 
are worked out in many different ways in various types of song, but one 
commonly recurring musical feature seems to be the simultaneous use of 
more than one metre at a time, as a way of heightening the rhythmic tension. 25 

The accompaniment takes many different forms, depending, among 
other things, on the geographical area and its resources, 26 on the genius of 
the particular people, and on the different genres within a single culture. 
It is common, for instance, to find some types of songs regularly without 
accompaniment, others with just clapping and/or dancing, others again 
with many different kinds of instrumental accompaniment, conventionally 
graded according to the song, the singers, or the occasion. 

When we come to the verbal style of these poems, it is almost impossible 
to generalize. As would be expected in poetry, there is a tendency to use 
a language somewhat different from that of everyday speech. This is 
particularly evident in the case of sung lyrics, where the melodic line imposes 
its own requirements, and in tonal languages, where there is the additional 
complication of the relationship between tune and tone. Connected with 
the importance attached to the musical aspect in these relatively short, sung 
lyrics is the frequent occurrence of meaningless words and onomatopoeic 
sounds which fill in the line, add length to the song as actually performed, 
and are used especially in chorus responses. Some songs, too, tend to be 
verbally fragmentary rather than fully developed poems as far as the words 
are concerned, though the fragments themselves may have a terse poetic 
interest (e.g. the examples in Nketia 1958b: 15-16). But there are many 
variations between different types of songs, each with its own style and 
diction, and, indeed, in contrast to comments on the subject-matter and 
contexts of songs, there is relatively little published work available. 27 


How far can these lyrics be said to be truly personal expressions of 
experience? This raises the difficult question of composition— difficult 
mainly because so little interest seems to have been shown in this aspect of 

25 On rhythm, see Merriam 1965: 455-6 (and further references given there). 

26 See Tracey 1954fl: 8-9, on the effect of the environment on the choice of instruments. 

27 One exception is the consideration of the Somali balwo in Andrzejewski 1967. 


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9. Lyric 259 

African poetry. Many commentators, even when they try to take this into 
account, content themselves with labelling specific songs as 'traditional' 
or 'improvised' without considering in what senses these words are used. 
But even this is better than the other still common approach of apparently 
explaining away the problem by classifying the lyrics as 'folk-songs' which 
can, it is then assumed, be happily attributed to 'the folk', so that the 
question of composition does not arise at all. 

It is certainly clear that some songs retain their popularity for 
many years. This may happen less to incidental and recreational songs 
(like most of the lyrics described here) than to songs definitely tied 
to particular solemn occasions such as initiation or religious ritual. 
A common pattern — demanding further research— may be for the music 
to remain basically the same while the words change. 28 But even with 
light-hearted dance songs it does seem that some (words as well as 
music) remain popular for so long that they might with some justice be 
termed 'traditional'. Others, however — and this is much more commonly 
mentioned in recent sources — are ephemeral only. The Ibo, for instance, 
are said to create impromptu poems all the time and forget them (Green 
1948: 842). Again, among the Kamba most songs are 'improvised' (with 
the exception of circumcision songs, which reappear in the same form 
again and again), and with dance songs the leader of the singing and 
dancing must make a new one when the old one is worn out— about 
every month or so (Lindblom iii, 1934: 40). Similar comments have been 
made about songs among many African peoples. 

Even with a familiar song there is room for variations on words or tune 
in actual delivery so that each performance in a sense may be a 'new' song. 
It must be remembered that these variations on a basic theme are more 
likely in societies that do not share our stress on the fixing nature of the 
written word, the concept of a single 'correct' form attributed to a single 
author. Even such obvious points as the number of repetitions used by a 
particular leader, the order of the verses, the variations by instruments in 
an accompanied song, and the varied movements of dancers — all these 
contribute to the finished work of art as a unique performance of which the 
verbal text of the song is only one element. 

28 In Tanganyika, for example, the poet seldom composes the time, but is free in his choice of 
the text; thus it is rare for a tune to be associated with one text only (Koritschoner 1937: 51). 
I noticed a similar pattern with certain types of songs, particularly dance songs— in Limba; 
see also Helser 1930: 65 (Bura), Andrezejewski 1967 (Somali). 


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260 Oral Literature in Africa 

There is one further aspect. The leader of the song adds new verses 
arising from the basic themes recognized by him and the chorus. Tracey 
describes this process in Southern Rhodesia. The chorus parts of a song 
are expected to remain the same, but the soloist (mushauri) introduces the 
song and is allowed full scope for originality during its performance. If he 
is not able to compose his new verse swiftly enough to keep his initiative, 
he either repeats the last verse several times to allow himself time for 
thought or, if necessary, yodels the tune, and finally sings to his neighbour 
to replace him in the lead (Tracey 1929: 97). This pattern by which the 
antiphonal form is exploited through improvisation by the leader and 
relatively unvaried support by the chorus seems to be very common 
indeed. Unless there are definite reasons for retaining sanctioned words, 
it seems generally rather rare for such songs to be repeated exactly from 
performance to performance — there is always scope for some variation by 
the leader (this is apparently also sometimes extended to the improvised 
performance of quite 'new' songs in terms of the melody and the form 
of the words. At least in some cases, choruses are quick to pick up the 
melody and words, often after having heard them just once or twice 
from the leader, and to sing them enthusiastically even though they were 
previously unknown to them). 

But one must not be so impressed by the excellences of African 
improvisation that everything is attributed to spontaneous creation. 
There is, first, the obvious point that improvisation takes place within 
certain conventional artistic forms known both to the soloist and also, 
perhaps equally important, to the chorus. More significantly, certain 
commentators make it clear that serious and conscious composition also 
takes place. 

One of the more detailed accounts of such composition is given by 
Tracey in his description of musical composition among the Chopi. The 
Chopi ngodo is an orchestral dance in nine to eleven movements that certain 
skilled and known musicians compose anew every two years or so. The 
stress is on the music and its elaboration. It is worth quoting his description 
at some length here, for this dependence of the words on the music is by no 
means unparalleled: 

A description of how Katini and Gumukomu set about composing a 
new orchestral dance will show how musically advanced these men 
are. Both of them say that the first thing they do is to find appropriate 
words for their song and compose the verses of the lyric before the 


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9. Lyric 261 

music. 29 The subject-matter may be gay, sad, or purely documentary. In 
every case it is highly topical and appropriate to the locality, so much 
so, in fact, that most of the allusions would be caught only by those in close 
touch with the villagers and the district. 

To return to the composer: when he has decided upon the words of his 
poem, or, in the case of a long poem, the opening verse, he must now find his 
melody. Chichopi, in common with other Bantu languages, is a tone language, 
and the sounds of the words themselves almost suggest a melodic flow of 
tones. This is developed rhythmically, as Gilbert and Sullivan did in their 
light operas, in one or other of the well-defined patterns which characterize 
their national verse, with clever use of repetition and offset phrases. The 
verses are not always metrically alike, as one would naturally expect of a 
tone language, but all bear a family relationship to the prototype lines. As 
often as not, the final verse sung to the coda is a repeat of the statement or 
first line of the poem. In this they follow a well-recognised trick of the trade 
which is exploited so frequently in our own popular songs .... 

The verse and the leitmotive now fixed in the composer's mind, he sits 
at his instrument [xylophone], over which his hands wander with expert 
deftness, and picks out the melody .... After a while, during which his right 
hand becomes accustomed to the new tune, his left will begin to fill in the 
harmonies or contra-melody with : well-understood sequences, punctuated 
with rhythmic surprises suggested by the ebb and flow of the words. Now 
the right hand will wander away from the melody, mapsui, into a variation, 
kuhambana, and as he sings the words over to himself the contrapuntal 
accompaniment will begin to form under his hands .... 

They now have the primary melodic line of the poem— the subject or 
leitmotive — and the secondary melodic accompaniment— the orchestral 
sentence — which fits the words contrapuntally, with a number of variations 
and sequences . . . (Tracey 1948a: 2-3; 4-5) 

Though the lyrics and their music are topical and relatively ephemeral, 
they are certainly not totally impromptu; in describing the process of their 
creation we can more suitably speak of artistic inspiration coupled with 
studied technique than of 'improvisation'. 

Something of the same process occurs with several song types in Zambia 
(Jones 1943). Among the Ila and Tonga there is commonly an interest in the 
personal ownership of songs: individuals are often expected to sing one of 
their own songs— a young man on the day of his marriage, for instance, a 
young girl on the day she is allowed to wear adult dress. Among their many 

29 This is not necessarily the most common method of procedure. Contrast, for instance, 
Ngoni composition where 'it is always a single inspiration which leads the composer to 
find the right words and the right music' (Read 1937: 3). 


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262 Oral Literature in Africa 

types of songs are those called impango. These are sung by women only 
at beer drinks or at work, and each woman must have her own personal 
repertoire of impango songs to sing as solos. One woman stands up at a time 
and sings her song in a very high and fast style. Meanwhile her intimate 
friends or her relatives may get up from time to time and interrupt the song 
with praise and small gifts. Impango composition is known to be difficult, 
and in every village there are a few women who are especially skilled in 
this art. What happens when a woman wants to make an impango is that 
she first thinks out the rather lengthy words— it may be praise of herself, 
her lover, or her husband — and then calls in some of her women friends to 
help her. Together they go to a well-known maker of impango songs. After 
hearing the woman's ideas, she then, often over a period of several days, 
composes the complete tune for the whole song. She calls a party of women 
to practise it each evening after supper, and they continue until the impango 
is complete and has been mastered by the whole party. The group is then 
disbanded and the woman who 'owns' the song continues to sing it on her 
own, knowing that if she forgets at any point she can ask one of the practice 
party to help her. She is now fully mistress of her impango and proud of her 
accomplishment. Whenever she is invited to a festival she keeps 'singing it 
in her heart' until it is finally time for her to stand up and sing it in public 

(Jones 1943: 11-12). 
The composition of another type of song, the inyimbo, is a simpler 
matter. The same sort of procedure is followed, but as these songs are 
shorter and simpler, the process is quicker. There are three main forms of 
this type of song, and the correct one must be used. The typical occasion of 
performance is for people to gather and sit down, and then start clapping 
or beating with sticks. A man or woman then stands up and dances; and as 
the owner of the song sings it right through, people pick it up and then sing 
it through themselves several times, followed by the owner again, then 
back to the group. There are also other types of song: the mapobolo song is 
characterized by brief words and a short tune that a woman first composes 
herself (working out at least the words or the tune), her friends then helping 
her to complete it before the actual performance in antiphonal form; while 
the zitengulo or women's mourning songs are composed completely by the 
individual, with no help from others; she starts to sing little by little and 
gradually adds the words and melody until the song is complete 

(Ibid.: 13-15). 


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9. Lyric 263 

There are, then, many different forms of song among the Ila and Tonga, 
and each has its own recognized mode of composition. What is striking 
is the emphasis on the care involved in composition and on the idea of 
personal ownership. 

Song composition in non-literate cultures almost necessarily involves 
co-operation, particularly where there is an accompaniment by chorus, 
instruments, or dancing, and where, as so often in African lyrics, there is an 
emphasis both on performance and on participation by the audience. But 
that there can also be a purely personal element of the greatest significance 
in moulding the song is clear from the Chopi and Zambian examples. 30 
How far this personal contribution is recognized by the people themselves 
seems to vary; even within one group certain songs may be regarded as 
the property of named individuals, while others are not. 31 But it is quite 
possible that further investigation of a topic that has hitherto been ignored 
will show that many other African peoples besides those mentioned engage 
not only in the art of improvisation but also in a process of long-considered 
and reflective individual creation. 

30 Cf. also the Luo nyatiti songs mentioned in Ch. 4: 90ff., and the Somali poets who spend 
hours or days composing their works (Andrzejewski and Lewis 1964: 45). 

31 e.g. Hurutsche (Merwe 1941: 307). For some other discussions of the process of 
composition and attitudes to it see Babalola 1966: 46ff. (Yoruba) de Dampierre 1963: 21ff. 
(Nzakara); Read 1937: 3 (Ngoni); Nettl 1954b, 1956: 12-19 (general). 


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10. Topical and Political Songs 

Topical and local poetry. Songs of political parties and movements: Mau Mau 
hymns; Guinea R.D.A. songs; Northern Rhodesian party songs. 

It has been well said that oral poetry takes the place of newspapers among 
non-literate peoples. Songs can be used to report and comment on current 
affairs, for political pressure, for propaganda, and to reflect and mould 
public opinion. This political and topical function can be an aspect of 
many of the types of poetry already discussed— work songs, lyric, praise 
poetry, even at times something as simple as a lullaby— but it is singled 
out for special discussion in this chapter. It is of particular importance to 
draw attention to this and to give a number of examples because of the 
common tendency in studies of African verbal art to concentrate mainly on 
the 'traditional' — whether in romanticizing or in deprecating tone — and to 
overlook its topical functions, especially its significance in contemporary 
situations. There have been a few admirable exceptions to this attitude 
to African oral literature, notably Tracey and others associated with the 
African Music Society (see esp. Rhodes 1962). Other references are given 
throughout this chapter. 1 

The political role of poetry is not just of recent origin in Africa. It is true 
that the present widespread occurrence of political songs directly associated 
with modern political parties and national politics did not antedate the 
founding of such organizations and their relevance in the contemporary 
political scene. But it would be a very narrow view of politics that would 
confine it only to the affairs of political parties or the formal institutions of 
modern nation states. In the wider sense it is certain that there were many 
political songs and poems in the past. Panegyric is an obvious example, 

1 For a useful general account and bibliography, not specifically related to Africa, see 
Denisoff 1966. 


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266 Oral Literature in Africa 

involving propaganda and support for the authorities, taking its extreme 
form in the mouth of the official court poet responsible for propagating the 
versions of historical events authorized by the rulers. Poetry can also be 
used to pressurize those in authority or to comment on local politics. Songs 
of insult, challenge, or satirical comment also have a long history, and 
can function not only on a personal level but also as politically effective 
weapons. 2 

Though such satirical and topical poems will be treated separately from 
party political songs here, it would be a mistake to assume too easily that 
there is necessarily a complete break in continuity between 'traditional' 
political poetry and that of 'modern polities'. It would be more accurate to 
say that the long-standing interests in oral literature and in politics have, 
not surprisingly, proved adaptable to the particular political circumstances 
of the mid-twentieth century. 


At a local level public singing can take the place of the press, radio, and 
publication as a way of expressing public opinion and bringing pressure 
to bear on individuals. This has been particularly well documented of the 
Chopi people of Portuguese East Africa (Tracey 1945, 1948a). Tracey speaks 
of the 'democratic purpose' of their poetry and the way 'poetic justice' can 
be said to be achieved through public singing. Established chiefs can be 
criticized in this way— the medium of song being used for what cannot be 
said directly: 

You, Chugela, you are proud of your position, yet you are only a chief made 

by the white man. 
Oh, the chieftainship of Nyaligolana and Chugela! 
Oh, the chieftainship of Nyaligolana and Chugela! 
It is a shame that should be hidden from Wani. 3 
Chugela is always asking presents from his brother. 
Sitiki is excluded from the council. They say they don't know him. 
The country of Mawewana is full of troubles. (Tracey 1948a: 68) 

The lines are from a poem attacking the young chief Chugela who, though 
only of the junior branch of the family, was being supported by the 

2 For an interesting description of Swahili political songs and lampoons in the nineteenth 
century see Hinawy 1950: 33ff. 

3 Paramount chief of the district. 


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10. Topical and Political Songs 267 

authorities after their deposition of previous (senior) chiefs. The poet is 
also seeking to publicize the view that Sitiki, the best brain of the district 
and so by rights a councillor, is being ignored by Chugela (as interpreted 
in Tracey 1945). 

Another Chopi poem is designed to put an ambitious man in his 
place, an instance of mild political propaganda. Fambanyane had tried to 
throw his weight around and exaggerate his claims to the chiefship. He 
was regarded as a public nuisance because of his threats against the other 
candidate, Manjengwe, and was eventually arrested: 

We are saying, 

We have reason to say we believe 

Fambanyane would have liked to be Chief. 

Fambanyane was brought before the judge, 

So now he can't threaten Manjengwe. 

He has lost his chance of wearing chief's uniform. 

We are saying, 

We have reason to say we believe 

Fambanyane would have liked to be Chief. (Tracey 1948<z) 

The Chopi are not alone in the use they make of song to attack unpopular 
public figures. Among many other instances one can quote the effective 
Somali poem addressed to a sultan who was ignoring the clan assembly 
and trying to assume dictatorial powers. The sultan— no match for the 
poet— was deposed: 

The vicissitudes of the world, oh 'Olaad, are like the clouds of the seasons 

Autumn weather and spring weather come after each other in turn 

Into an encampment abandoned by one family, another family moves 

If a man is killed, one of his relatives will marry his widow 

Last night you were hungry and alone, but tonight people will feast you as 

a guest 
When fortune places a man even on the mere hem of her robe, he quickly 

becomes proud and overbearing. 
A small milking vessel, when filled to the brim, soon overflows. 

(Andrzejewski 1963: 24) 

Pressure on those with or aspiring to positions of power can also be offered 
in the guise of flattery. Some instances of this have already been noticed in 
Chapter 5 on panegyric. Again, one could cite the piece of Yoruba advice to 
a pretender to the Alafin's throne: 

Be the king at once my lord, 

Cease acting like a king (Beier 1956: 26) 


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268 Oral Literature in Africa 

or, in a rather different context, a poem praising Olorum Nimbe, then 
Mayor of Lagos. Cast in the form of a piece of popular dance music, it yet 
proffered advice and instruction: 

I am greeting you, Mayor of Lagos, 

Mayor of Lagos, Olorum Nimbe, 

Look after Lagos carefully. 

As we pick up a yam pounder with care, 

As we pick up a grinding stone with care, 

As we pick up a child with care, 

So may you handle Lagos with care. (Beier 1956: 28) 

This indirect means of communicating with someone in power through the 
artistic medium of a song is a way by which the singers hope to influence 
while at the same time avoiding the open danger of speaking directly. The 
conventionality of the song makes it possible to indicate publicly what could 
not be said privately or directly to a man's face. To take only one example: 
when Merriam was collecting song texts among the Shi of the Kivu area in 
the Congo some were sung to him while he was with a plantation owner. It 
turned out that the girls working on the plantation were using these songs 
to express their dissatisfaction with the owner. They felt it impossible to 
raise this directly with him, but were seizing the opportunity to convey it 
indirectly. They sang, for instance, of the way the employer had recently 
stopped giving them salt and oil: 

We have finished our work. Before, we used to get oil; now we don't get it. 
Why has Bwana stopped giving us oil? We don't understand. If he doesn't 
give us oil, we will all leave and go to work for the Catholic Fathers. There 
we can do little work and have plenty of oil. So we are waiting now to see 
whether Bwana X will give oil. Be careful! If we don't get oil, we won't work 
here. (Merriam 1954: 51-2) 

Not all criticisms of superiors are equally indirect. One could mention the 
increasingly harsh and direct innuendo of the unsatisfied Hausa praise 
singer (above Ch. 4: 94-5) or Harm's description of the Hottentots in the 
nineteenth century. He reports how unpopular chiefs were lectured by 
women in sarcastic 'reed-songs' (a habit ruefully commented on in the 
Hottentot proverb about women— 'They cannot be as long quiet as it takes 
sweet milk to get sour') and describes one occasion when the young girls 
sang into the chief's face telling him 

that he was a hungry hyena and a roguish jackal; that he was the brown 
vulture who is not only satisfied with tearing the flesh from the bones, but 
also feasted on the intestines. (Hahn 1881: 28) 


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10. Topical and Political Songs 269 

In all these cases the oblique and limited nature of the attack is maintained 
by its limitation to a medium with its own artistic conventions or to 
specially privileged singers, sometimes allowed to perform only on 
particular occasions. 

Songs are also directed against opposing groups or individuals. These can 
take many forms. There are, for instance, the half-joking 'moqueries de 
villages' among the Dogon, exchanged between individuals of the same age, 
between villages, or between different quarters of the same village. Some of 
these are only short phrases, but there are also longer texts, and, within the 
conventional form, Timagination fertile et l'ironie aceree des Dogon ne se font 
pas faute d'inventer sans cesse de nouvelles plaisanteries' (Calame-Griaule 
1954fr: 13). The faults and customs of others are ironically commented on or 
their accents parodied and ridiculed. Of a more serious and poetic nature are 
the songs reported from the Ewe of Ghana. There, when two villages quarrel, 
they compose abusive songs against each other, usually directed against the 
offending elder of the opposing village. Some of these are very elaborate and 
can last, without repetition, for as long as half an hour (Gbeho 1954: 62). 

Similar self-assertive songs by groups can equally take place in an urban 
environment. Mitchell has analysed the songs of kalela dance teams on the 
Copperbelt in the early 1950s (Mitchell 1956). Each team boasts of its own 
distinctiveness as against other tribes and jokingly derides the customs 
and languages of others, Yet the content of the songs themselves not only 
reflects the preoccupations, events, even language of life in the towns, but 
also, paradoxically, by its very attacks on other ethnic groups recognizes 
their significance for the singers (for a parallel with the kalela dance see 
Lambert 1962-3fl). 

Again, songs can be used to assert the unity of trade union groups. The 
following examples from Tanganyika bring out the distinction between 
employer and employee: 

We regret that the employers should trifle with us, 

We are deprived of our rights, indeed we know nowhere to eat. 

We do their work, bring them in their money, 

Clothes sprout on them through the efforts of the workers. 

Give the workers' organisations freedom 

We don't want the law to break our Unions 

In a free Tanganyika may the Unions be strong 

We don't want to be despised 

So let us unite and triumph over the employers. (Whiteley 1964: 221) 


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270 Oral Literature in Africa 

Lampoons are not only used between groups but can also be a means 
of communicating and expressing personal enmity between hostile 
individuals. We hear of Galla abusive poems, for instance (Chadwicks 
iii, 1940: 549) while among the Yoruba when two women have quarrelled 
they sometimes vent their enmity by singing at each other, especially 
in situations— like the laundry place — when other women will hear 
(Mabogunje 1958: 35). Abusive songs against ordinary individuals are also 
sometimes directly used as a means of social pressure, enforcing the will of 
public opinion. Among the Chopi, for instance, we hear of a verse directed 
against a young man who was trying to seduce a very young girl: 

We see you! 

We know you are leading that child astray. 

Katini (the composer) sees you but keeps quiet. 

Although he knows it all right he keeps quiet, 

Katini, the leader of Timbilas i 

We know you! (Tracey 1948a: 29) 

A group of Hottentots took the same line against an old man who married 
a young girl: her friends sang 'The first wife is dismissed, his only great 
thought is the second wife' (Hahn 1881: 29). 

Such songs can even be said on occasion to form part of semi-judicial 
proceedings against individuals. This is particularly clear in the case of the 
Ibo. For instance, in one area (Umuahia) oro songs are sung at night by 
groups of young men and women who go to the houses of those they agree 
have offended, and sing against them as well as causing physical damage 
to their possessions. A notoriously lazy man is lampooned: 

Ibejimato, Ibejimato, it is time now. Woman asks you to wrestle with her but 
you carry your cutlass and walk about; it is time now. (Madumere 1953: 64) 

Ibejimato is so lazy and fearful that he does not even dare to fight a woman; 
in fact they remind him that when he did once get involved in a quarrel 
with a woman, he actually ran away, his cutlass on his shoulder. The song 
is to make him realize his laziness, and make him feel ashamed and turn 
over a new leaf —and is supplemented by damage to his possessions. On 
another occasion abusive songs by women formed part of the procedure 
of collecting a fine already imposed on a woman for false accusation— 'the 
execution of justice' (Green 1964: 200). The women went in a body to the 
house of the offender to sing and dance against her. Both songs and dances 

4 Local xylophone. 


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10. Topical and Political Songs 271 

were quite explicitly obscene and the episode had the effect of making the 
victim undertake to pay her fine (Green 1964: 199-205). 

It is possible to exaggerate the functional aspect of such lampoons. 
Sheer enjoyment plays a part too. As Green writes of the episode just 

As for the women, I never saw them so spirited. They were having a night 
out and they were heartily enjoying it and there was a speed and energy 
about everything they did that gave a distinctive quality to the episode. 
It was also the only occasion in the village that struck one as obscene in 
the intention of the people themselves. Mixed with what seemed genuine 
amusement there was much uncontrolled, abandoned laughter. There was 
a suggestion of consciously kicking over the traces about the whole affair. 
(Green 1964: 202-3) 

Even without the extra appeal of unaccustomed obscenity as in these 
derisive Ibo songs, this enjoyment may be just as significant as social 
control. Thus the Hottentots sing satirically but with humour of a childless 

We love each other as the goats that have no kids love 

We love each other as the goats that have no kids love. (Stopa 1938: 110) 

and in Tanganyika the Asu nyimbo za kugana, songs sung in huts just before 
sleep, provide an opportunity for improvisation and humour as well as 
attack. One man starts up the song, then others reply in solo or chorus — for 
example, in address to a grumbler: 

Ndi-ndi! Ndi-ndi! [expletives used in complaining] 

Grandfather of Mruma, 

He hasn't a cow, 

He hasn't a goat, 

He hasn't a chicken, 

No not (even) a rat (in his house). (Bull 1933: 326-7) 

— and so on, continued at great length, with plenty of scope for humour, 
until almost every conceivable possession has been named, while the chorus 
reply in unison ndi-ndi! after each line. Similar enjoyment is evident in the 
public dances and singing in Abomey (Dahomey) witnessed by Herskovits, 
when unpopular individuals are ridiculed and attacked in songs. Though 
no names are mentioned, everyone knows who is meant and rejoices in the 
occasion. For example: 

Woman, thy soul is misshapen. 
In haste was it made, in haste. 
So fleshless a face speaks, telling 


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272 Oral Literature in Africa 

Thy soul was formed without care. 

The ancestral clay for thy making 

Was moulded in haste, in haste. A thing of no beauty art thou, 

Thy face unsuited to be a face, 

Thy feet unsuited for feet. (Herskovits 1934: 78) 

These derisive songs directed against specified individuals or groups shade 
into topical and satirical songs in general. Thus the Tiv, among many others, 
sing about the events of the year: they comment on the present position of 
chiefs or express their reactions to a recent deposition or this season's road 
work. They also improvise about recent incidents and people — like the 
song about selling their soya beans to only one of the rival firms: 

We are not going to sell our soya beans to Mallam Dama 

we are going to sell them to Alhaji Sali. (Lane 1954: 14; see also Phillips 1936) 

Domestic affairs also come into such songs. The Ndau dancer comments 
ruefully on his father's new wife: 

My father, he married 
A crocodile wife, 

That bites, that bites, 
-ya, I-ya-wo-ye! (Curtis 1920: 39) 

While a Baule woman sings lightly: 

Je commettrai volontiers l'adultere. Les maris de mes camarades seront tour 
a tour mes amants. Mais qui d'entre elles aura l'audace de se plaindre? 

(Effimbra 1952: 297) 

These topical songs often give a vivid personal picture of a general situation 
and the attitude to it, as well as of the specific events they comment on. 
Thus in Malawi, in the late 1950s, the wives of men detained for opposition 
to government showed their pride in their 'Prison Graduate' husbands, 
and used to sing as they pounded their maize: 

My husband is a man: 

He's away in Kanjedza. 

The men who are here 

Are women like us. (Sanger 1960: 320) 

Again an Acholi girl married to a soldier sings effectively of their separation: 
they can write letters— but what can letters do? 

Writing writing writing so many letters. 

Those letters can they be changed into a child? 

Wives of soldiers are barren [have to wait for years before they get a child]. 

Wives of soldiers are truly barren. (Okot 1963: 312) 


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10. Topical and Political Songs 273 

Or a Chewa woman thinks about her husband who is away working in the 
copper mines: 

When I get a letter from Masula 

I read it with all my heart. (Tracey 1953: 19) 

The same experience— from the man's viewpoint— is touched on in a Sotho 
dance song in the country areas: 

Basutoland is my fatherland, 

At Bushman's Nek, near Machacha, in the mountains. 

I joined up for work on the mines, 

But when I arrived I found myself in trouble. 

I was with Molelekoa, son of Smith. 

So I crossed the Vaal very early in the morning 

That was when I was nearly swept down with the river. 

Perhaps it was because I was running away, 

Running away and leaving my passes on the veld. 

I left mine in the western Transvaal, 

I left both my pass and my tax receipt! (A/r. Music 2. 2, 1959: 72-3) 

The urban experiences of Africans in the towns of South Africa are 

commented on in many of the Zulu songs about police and passes recorded sfc. 

by Tracey. 3 These can be illustrated from three of his examples. In the first, 

the scene is the pass office where all male Africans had to go to get their 

Registration Certificates, involving a wait of hours, even days, before being 


Take off your hat. 

What is your home name? 

Who is your father? 

Who is your chief? 

Where do you pay your tax? 

What river do you drink? 

We mourn for our country. (Tracey 1963: 53) 

Arrest by the police for not having the correct papers, and imprisonment 
in 'Blue Sky', the popular name of the gaol at Boksburg near Johannesburg, 
are the themes of the next two songs: 

There comes the big van. 

All over the country 

They call it the Pick-up Van. 

There is the Pick-up. There, there is the big van. 

'Where's your pass?' 

'Where's your tax?' (Tracey 1948b: 55) 


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274: Oral Literature in Africa 

They caught him! 

They caught him and handcuffed him! 

They sent him to 'Blue Sky' . (Tracey 1948b: 54) 

The last type of topical song to be mentioned here comprises those that 
particularly express the aspirations and self-appreciation of groups, songs 
that often have at least some political relevance. These merge into the songs 
already discussed, and also recall some of the military poems that reflect 
and reinforce the militant unity of a given group. An example would be the 
Akan hunting song which asserts the power of the hunter's group against 
that of the chief: 

Does the chief say he is greater than the hunter? 
Arrogance! Hunter? Arrogance! 

(Nketia 1963b: 76; see full song in Ch. 8 above) 

and the trade union and kalela dance, songs could be seen to be fulfilling 
something of the same function. So too in the Congo the followers of the 
prophet Matswa expressed their protest and their allegiance in song: 

Nous autres qui n'avons pas de soutien. 

Nous autres qui n'avons pas de defenseur. 

Dieu le Pere-tout-puissant, veille sur nous. 

Pere Congo, Pere, qui pensera a nous? 

A nous autres, qui y pensera? 

Matswa, Pere-tout-puissant, veille sur nous. 

Matswa, Pere-tout-puissant, envoie-nous un defenseur. 

(Balandier 1955: 1557). 

Even in South Africa a certain amount of fairly explicit political protest seems 
to be expressed through song if we can assume that certain of the 'South 
African freedom songs' 5 were of wide circulation. In one, for instance, the 
singers appeal to Chief Luthuli (President of the African National Congress) 
in conjunction with Dr. G. M. Naicker (President of the Indian Congress): 

God, save the volunteers, 

God, save Africans. 

God, save the volunteers, 

God, save Africans. 

We say yes, yes, Chief Lut'huli, 

And you, Doctor Naicker, liberate us. 

(Bass voices) Daliga chek. 
We say yes, yes, Chief Lut'huli, 

5 Folkways Records Album EPC-601, New York, quoted Rhodes 1962: 22. 


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10. Topical and Political Songs 275 

And you, Doctor Naicker, liberate us. 

(Bass voices) Daliga click. (Rhodes 1962: 18-19) 

In certain circumstances hymns can have similar overtones. Some of the 
religious verses of the South African separatist churches founded by Shembe 
express political aspirations and ideals that are difficult to communicate 
through more formal political channels— the idea of Africa for the Africans, 
or of the value, despite the contemporary political situation, of African 
customs and leadership: 

Africa, rise! 

and seek thy Saviour. 

Today our sons and daughters 

are slaves. (Sundkler 1961: 196) 

More explicitly political are some of the performances of the originally 
Methodist-inspired hymn Nkosi Sikele' iAfrica . . . ('God bless Africa ...'), 
which is used as a political song in meetings of the African National 
Congress and other political contexts (Rhodes 1962: 16-17), the Mau 
May 'hymns' discussed in the next section, and the way in which, during 
Nkrumah's imprisonment by the colonial authorities, political protest was 
expressed by the singing of Christian hymns like 'Lead kindly light, amid 
the encircling gloom' (Ibid.: 16). 

Figure 18. New and old in Africa. 'Funky Freddy' of The Jungle Leaders, 

playing hip-hop political songs and banned from Radio Sierra Leone for 

their protest lyrics ( with 

the expert Yoruba oriki (praise) singer Sangowemi in the background 

(photo courtesy Karin Barber). 


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276 Oral Literature in Africa 

The social functions of the various types of songs mentioned here are 
particularly obvious, more strikingly so than most of those discussed in 
earlier chapters. They can be a way of exerting pressure on others, whether 
equals or superiors; of expressing often indirectly or in a limited and 
conventional manner, what could not be said directly, or through a different 
medium, or on just any occasion; of upholding or suggesting certain values 
and interests that cannot be expressed in other ways, particularly when 
there is no direct access to political activity. Like Dogon villagers of kalela 
dancers, the singers may both assert the solidarity of their own group and at 
the same time recognize their close relationship with others. The songs may 
even— as Herskovits and his followers remind us— provide a means for the 
psychological release of otherwise repressed enmities and tensions through 
a socially permissible form. But besides these obvious social functions we 
can point equally to the related literary roles of these songs— to the way in 
which such socially sanctioned occasions are used for artistic purposes, to the 
humour and enjoyment expressed, to the satirical, meditative, or resigned 
comment on the circumstances of life, and, finally, to the way in which even 
enmity or social pressure can be viewed with a certain detachment through 
the artistic and conventional medium of the song. 6 


It is perhaps not generally recognized how widely political songs are used 
in Africa. Songs are now accepted by African political parties as a vehicle 
for communication, propaganda, political pressure, and political education. 
Their exact nature and purpose vary, but they have in common the fact 
of being oral rather than visual propaganda. It is true that some of these 
songs at times appear in writing, even print, and written collections of 
party songs circulate in some areas; nonetheless their propagation among 
the largely non-literate masses is almost purely oral. As such they are a 
powerful and flexible weapon in many types of political activity. 

One of the advantages songs may have as vehicles of political expression 
is their apparently innocuous nature. This is particularly true of those songs 
used at a relatively early stage in African nationalist movements when 
concealment of organized political activity was felt desirable. In a colonial 

6 For other instances of topical songs see D.C. Simmons (1960); J. Roberts (1965); Ogunba 


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10. Topical and Political Songs 277 

situation in which political power was ultimately in the hands of foreigners, 
many of whom could not speak the local language, songs and poems had 
the double advantage of being ostensibly nothing to do with politics at all 
(unlike, say, newspapers) and of being unintelligible to many of those in 
authority. Rhodes cites an early example of this from West Africa, in a drum 
poem used by the Ashanti after their submission to British rule in 1900. 
When the Governor appeared at a public gathering, he was ceremonially, 
and apparently honorifically, greeted with drum music; what the drums 
were repeating, however, were the words of an old war song, 'slowly 
but surely we shall kill Adinkra'; while the local audience understood 
quite clearly that by Adinkra' the drums meant the British, it is doubtful 
if the Governor was aware of any political significance at all, let alone a 
hostile one (Rhodes 1962: 14-15, based on a personal communication by 
J.H. Nketia). Somali love poems, or apparent love poems, have been used 
in the same way. They could safely be performed in public or even on the 
government-controlled radio, the obscurity of their language concealing 
their meaning for the independence struggle, except from their intended 
audiences (the people in the independence movement) (Andrzejewski 
1967: 13). Again, there was the occasion of the Queen's Birthday Festivities 
in Nyasaland (as it was then called) in the early 1950s, when official policy 
was to encourage the idea of federation against local opposition. The school- 
children marched innocently past the presiding District Commissioner 
singing anti-federation songs taught them by their schoolteacher— and the 
District Commissioner did not understand a word (Tracey 1954a: 237). 

One of the best examples of the use of songs for secret propaganda is 
the hymns used by the Mau Mau movement in Kenya in the early 1950s. 7 
This movement, part political, part religious, was banned by government, 
and yet, largely by means of these songs, was able to carry out active and 
widespread propaganda among the masses in Kenya. Leakey describes 
vividly how this could be done: 

The leaders of the Mau Mau movement . . . were quick to realise the very 
great opportunity which the Kikuyu love of hymn singing offered for 
propaganda purposes. In the first place propaganda in 'hymn' form and 
set to well-known tunes would be speedily learned by heart and sung over 
again and again and thus provide a most effective method of spreading the 
new ideas. The fact that such 'hymns' would be learned by heart, by those 

7 The present account is taken from the description in L.S.B. Leakey, Defeating Mau Mau, 
London 1954, esp. Ch. 5. 


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278 Oral Literature in Africa 

who could read them, and then taught to others, meant that they would 
soon also become well known to the illiterate members of the tribe. This was 
very important, for there were many who could not be reached by ordinary 
printed propaganda methods. 

More important still, these propaganda messages could safely be sung 
in the presence of all but a few Europeans, since the vast majority could 
not understand a word of Kikuyu and if they hard a large, or small, group 
singing to the tune of 'Onward Christian Soldiers', 'Abide with me', or any 
other well-known hymn, they were hardly likely to suspect that propaganda 
against themselves was going on under their very noses. They would be 
more likely to consider that a Christian revival was on its way . . . 

There is no doubt at all that these hymns, which were being sung at 
K.A.U. [Kenya African Union] meetings, at Independent Schools and 
Churches, in the homes of thousands in the Kikuyu Reserve, in squatter 
villages on European farms, and even in the staff quarters and kitchens of 
European homes, were one of the most powerful propaganda weapons of 
the whole Mau Mau movement (Leakey 1954: 53-4; 75). 

Some examples of these Mau Mau hymns (in English translation) will 
illustrate these points more clearly. The first is praise of Jomo Kenyatta, who 
is represented as the great leader and saviour, the focus of unity and loyalty: 

God makes his covenant shrine until it is brighter than the sun, that neither 
hill nor darkness can prevent him coming to fulfil it, for God is known as 
the Conqueror. 

He told Kenyatta in a vision 'You shall multiply as the stars of heaven, 
nations will be blessed because of you'. And Kenyatta believed him and God 
swore to it by his mighty power . . . 

Kenyatta made a Covenant with the Kikuyu saying he would devote his 
life to them, and would go to Europe to search for the power to rule, so as 
to be a judge over the House of Mumbi. I ask myself 'Will we ever come out 
of this state of slavery?' 

He went, he arrived there and he came back. He promised the Kikuyu, 
'When I return M — shall go in order to arrange for the return of our land.' 
May God have mercy upon us. 

When the day for his return comes he will come with the decisions 
about our land and the building which he said he would come to erect at 
Githunguri ya Wairera shall be the one in which our rule shall be established. 

(Ibid.: 57) 

The next two vividly express and encourage hatred of Europeans for their 
actions and presence in Kenya, particularly their control of land: 

There is great wailing in the land of the black people because of land hunger, 
you fools and wise people alike, is there any among you who is not aware of 
the overcrowding in our land. 


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10. Topical and Political Songs 279 

You Europeans you are nothing but robbers, though you pretended you 
came to lead us. Go away go away you Europeans, the years that are past 
have been more than enough for us ... . 

You of Kikuyu and Mumbi 8 fight hard, that we may be given 
self-government, that our land may be given back to us. The corn is ripe for 
harvest, if we are late the harvest will be lost .... 

Long ago the Europeans came upon us with weapons of war and they 
drove us out and took our land. Go away, go away you Europeans .... 
(Leakey 1954: 63-4) 

When the Europeans came from Europe they said they came to give us 
learning and we accepted them gladly, but woe upon us, they really came 
to oppress us. 

Those who hate the house of Mumbi and say they prefer the Europeans, 
will have great trouble in Kikuyu land when we achieve self-government. 

When the house of Mumbi meets in order to recruit others to the house of 
Mumbi 3 there are some who side with the enemy and are like Judas of old. 9 

You house of Mumbi even if you are oppressed, do not be afraid in your 
hearts, a Kikuyu proverb says 'God help those who help themselves'. 

You who side with Europeans when they go back to Europe, you will 
kneel down before us and weep, claiming that you did not realise what you 
were doing. 

When the Europeans return to Europe you who sell the land of the 
house of Mumbi we will answer you, by saying, 'We disown you even as 
you disowned us'. 

When Kenyatta came back from Europe he came with a spear and sword 
and shield and a war helmet on his head as a sign for the Kikuyu. 

M — will return with spear and shield to uplift the house of Mumbi and 
avenge the oppression which they have suffered from the Europeans. 

Let those who go and report on our doings be accursed by their reports 
and if they get pay for what they do, let the pay be a curse upon them too. 

Oh, house of Mumbi let us exert ourselves to get our land returned, 
the land which was ours and stolen from us by the deceitful Europeans. 

(Ibid.: 65-6) 

Many other similar threats were expressed against Kikuyu 'loyalists' who 
supported the government. The effect was a direct incitement to violence, 
which resulted in the deaths of many of these suspected traitors: 

As for you who side with the Europeans, on the day when God hears us, you 
will be wiped out. 

8 The traditional 'Eve' of the Kikuyu. 

9 This means that when members of Mau Mau (who always refer to themselves as the 
house of Mumbi) meet for an oath ceremony at which others are formally enlisted into 
the movement, there are some who go and report to the police and take on themselves 
the role of traitor. 


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280 Oral Literature in Africa 

Let every man ask himself, let everyone ask himself, 'How do I stand with 
the black races?' for the time is soon coming like the days of long ago when 
the evil people will be burned. (Leakey 1954: 62; 65) 10 

These hymns appeared in books as well as in oral form and were frequently 
distributed through the offices of the K.A.U. (which operated as a front 
organization for Mau Mau). Little notice was taken by the authorities of 
these publications. This was in contrast to the Kikuyu newspapers, which 
were closely scrutinized by the Intelligence Branch of the police and 
thought to be potentially subversive by European employers. The hymn- 
books appeared safe from such suspicion, and those in charge were able 
to become bolder and more blatant in their incitements to violence. One 
of their triumphs was the setting of new words to the tune of the British 
National Anthem — calling, in various versions, for blessing on the land of 
the Kikuyu, on Jomo Kenyatta, and on those agitating for self-government. 
This ploy was immediately successful. Supporters of Mau Mau were seen 
enthusiastically standing up for the National Anthem, in reality praying for 
the return of their own land to them; while Europeans merely remarked on 
the apparent increase among the Kikuyu of loyalty to the Crown (Leakey 
1954: 72-3). Calls to violence against Europeans as well as Kikuyu 'traitors' 
could also become more open. Thus, to the tune of 'Here we suffer grief 
and pain': 

Here we suffer thumb-printing and grass planting. 'T' won't be so when the 

land is ours. 
The warrior hut is set up, one brave leader is already here, the other is on 

his way. 
Let the Europeans exert themselves now for the time has come to separate 

what is theirs and what belongs to others. 
Those who were our friends, but who have become spies will be cast into 

the sea. 
What is making you hesitate when you hear the call to prepare? You were 

born to be warriors. 
Their ears are shut, their hearts are shut, Now let us march to war. 
Support your just words with strong deeds that you fall not by the wayside. 

(Ibid.: 68) 

The results of these hymns as propaganda can be seen in the spread 
and tenacity of Mau Mau as a political movement. Because the ideas 
expressed were considered subversive by the government they could 

10 Many loyalists were in fact burned alive. 


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10. Topical and Political Songs 281 

not be publicized openly. But the hymns could speak quite explicitly 
to the audience for whom they were intended. Hymns had the further 
advantages that they were felt to be a specially effective and personal 
way of reaching the people's hearts, and could be claimed to result 
from a special revelation, giving them a religious as well as a political 

Although basic to the Mau Mau situation, secrecy is not always necessary. 
In other circumstances in fact songs can form a part of a political movement 
that expressly intends to publicize its aims. A good example of this is given 
in Schachter's description of the confrontation between the R.D.A. and the 
local French administration in French Guinea (as it was then) in 1954-55 
(Schachter 1958). 

The R.D.A. (Rassemblement Democratique Africain) had the support of 
a large majority of people in French Guinea, and was led locally by Sekou 
Toure. This leader had succeeded in capturing both the support and the 
imagination of his followers. Many myths were woven around him, and in 
songs and poems he, the R.D.A., and its symbol 'Sily' (the elephant) stood 
as symbols of the political aspirations of the people: 

Sily is too strong. 

He does not retreat 

When he is provoked. (Ibid.: 673) 

One of the main weapons used by the R.D.A. was political songs praising 
Sekou Toure and attacking or advising his opponents. Unlike Mau Mau 
hymns, these do not ever seem to have appeared in written form, but 
they nevertheless became popular throughout Guinea, mostly in the Susu 
language. Where less than ten per cent of the population could read or 
write the French language taught in schools, the effectiveness of these 
orally transmitted songs as political propaganda is obvious. It was further 
strengthened by the linking of Sekou Toure and the R.D.A. with Islam, the 
main religion in Guinea. 

The political songs played an important part in the incidents of 
1954-55. A deputy for Guinea to the French National Assembly died in 
1954 and new elections were held. Sekou Toure, the R.D.A. candidate, 
was supported by the urban workers and many of the farmers, but 
his opponent, Barry Diawadou, was backed not only by the officially 
appointed chiefs but by the French administration. So, when Diawadou 
was declared elected, the popular belief was that the results had been 
falsified by the administration to secure the election of their own 


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282 Oral Literature in Africa 

candidate. Diawadou was abused in song for his opposition to the 
elephant (the R.D.A.): 

Diawadou you are a thief. 

You stole not only from Yacine, 11 

You stole from the people. 

There will be a fatal reckoning 
When you face your God. 
You, Diawadou! 
You stole from the elephant. 
You stole a voice. 
One of those voices sings. 
You cannot steal a voice. 
You will pay. 
The elephant is the strongest. (Schachter 1958: 673) 

People continued to believe that Sekou Toure was the rightful deputy, their 
real chief, and when he travelled round the country he was given a hero's 
welcome and greeted in songs of praise: 

You came into your land. 

You came into your capital. 

You chose your hour for coming. {ffi 

A chief commands. 
He speaks his will. 
Lift up your head! 
Look at the sea of faces. 
It is your world. 

It is your people: 
Which sits 
When you say sit; 
Which rises 
When you say rise. 

You are a new chief. 
You are chosen as chief. 
The people is with you. 
The barriers are cut. 
We must follow, 
For all will follow. 

You are a new chief. 
Lift up your head! 

11 The previous deputy. 


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10. Topical and Political Songs 283 

Look at the sea of faces, 

That answers when you call. (Schachter 1958: 673) 

The official declaration that Sekou Toure had been defeated thus led to 
general anger in both Conakry and the interior, and there were many 
demonstrations, riots, and protest meetings in which songs played their 
part. This mass indignation was used by the R.D. A. leaders to demonstrate 
their following to the French administration and local political opponents. 
The following shows how the R.D. A. militants preached unity and solidarity 
to the people: they must stand united, for even Sekou Toure can do nothing 
alone against the authorities. The opponents of R.D. A. are called on too: 
they should accept the 'chiefship' of Sekou Toure and the French National 
Assembly should refuse to validate the election: 

Listen to the story of Sekou. 

Sekou alone can do nothing, 

Just as no one can act alone. 

All the councillors are against him, 

As are all their henchmen. 

All the important people hate him. 

Listen carefully, 

The elections are not yet validated. 

If you want the trouble to end, 

Give the chiefdom to him who merits it. 

So that the trouble ends. 

For the trouble has long antennae 

Which will cross your path 

When least you expect them. (Ibid.: 675) 

The local French administration attempted to hold the situation. 
Repressive measures were tried, among them the expulsion of many 
unemployed in Conakry who were thought responsible for some of the 
recent incidents. The results of this, however, were not altogether as 
expected. Schachter describes the removal of these 'vagrants': 'They were 
piled into trucks, and sent back to the villages. R.D. A. militants tell of 
their delight at these free rides. The overloaded open trucks carried many 
R.D. A. supporters on impromptu propaganda tours. This is what they 
chanted on their trip: 

They say that the elephant does not exist. 

But here is the elephant, 

The elephant no one can beat.' (Idem) 


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284 Oral Literature in Africa 

The French National Assembly's acceptance of the election results added 
further fuel to the movement. Throughout the land Sekou Toure and his 
policies were praised in many contexts — in religious terminology: 

God is great. 

It is hard 

To bring unbelievers 

Into the brotherhood of believers. 

But we need the die-hards 

To spur us on 

To make life complete. (Schachter 1958: 677) 

or in compositions by the women: 

Here is the light 

Of the chieftaincy of Sekou Toure. 

It rises, 




Those who are of good faith 

Speak in our way. 

Those who are of bad faith ^k 

Qualify what they say. 

One single thing is true. 

When the sun rises 

The palm of the hand 

Cannot hide its light. 

It is visible; 

It is gigantic. 

You cannot stand its heat. 

Even in a shaded place. 

It is like the light 

Of Sekou's chieftaincy. (Ibid.: 675-7) 

So effective was this R.D.A. mass opposition that the administration was 
forced to reconsider its policy and the French Colonial Minister came out 
to explore the possibility of a different approach. The R.D.A. seized the 
opportunity to demonstrate its wide support and turned out huge crowds 
in welcome. R.D.A. militants took charge of public order, giant placards 
were paraded, and R.D.A. songs were performed all the way along the 
route from the airport to the town. 

This visit marked the turning point. Though popular protests continued, 
the R.D.A. considered it a confession of their success and of the metropolitan 


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10. Topical and Political Songs 285 

French government's repudiation of the local administration's policy. More 
elections were finally held in January 1956 (and yet more songs were 
composed). The R.D.A.'s candidates, including Sekou Toure, won two of 
the three Guinea seats to the French National Assembly. This final triumph 
was summed up in their songs of triumph over their now powerless 
opponents. They sang: 

You prepare food, 

The most exquisite food to be found. 

You are ready with your spoon 

To spoon out the first spoonful. 

And lo! a drop of violent poison 

Falls into the food. 

The water is dirtied 

It becomes undrinkable. 

All is finished. 

All is over. (Schachter 1958: 681) 

The campaign had finally been successful and the propaganda had fulfilled 
its purpose. 

By the late 1950s and early 1960s political songs in Africa seem to have 
become a standard accompaniment of recognized political parties and the 
election campaigns that were by now becoming more and more a feature 
of political activity in African colonies and ex-colonies. Songs formed 
part of election campaigns in, for example, Sierra Leone and Senegal in 
1957, Nyasaland in 1961, and Northern Rhodesia in 1962. Some politicians 
managed to exploit oral propaganda even further and, like the Western 
Nigerian leader Adelabu, organized the circulation of gramophone 
records of songs supporting them (Sklar 1953: 300; 313). 12 Altogether 
there is still great reliance on oral means of propaganda — speeches, mass 
meetings, and songs— in keeping with the still largely non-literate or 
semi-literate mass electorate for whom the written word is of relatively 
lesser significance. 

Northern Rhodesia (later Zambia) seems to have been particularly 
rich in organized political songs in the vernacular, sometimes specially 
composed and written for the party, and often sung by official mass choirs. 
Several have been published among those written for the African National 

12 See also the detailed description of such songs in electioneering at a local level in Western 
Nigeria in Beier 1960. 


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286 Oral Literature in Africa 

Congress (A.N.C.) in the late 1950s. One, cast in the form of a praise song, 
honouring Nkumbula, President of the A.N.C, had the familiar purpose of 
attempting to project a leader's image to the mass of followers: 

Mr. Nkumbula, we praise you. 

You have done a good work. 

Look today, we sing praising you, 

For you have done a good work. 

We praise, too, all your cabinet 

And all your Action Group. 

You have done good work. (Rhodes 1962: 18) 

Two other songs can be quoted that were used to promote the A.N.C.'s 
policies and to educate as well as incite the masses. Ill-defined popular 
grievances are taken up and focused into definite political aims associated 
with the party programme. The first is in the form of a meditation with 
chorus, suitable for the whole audience to echo: 

One day, I stood by the road side. 

I saw cars passing by. 

As I looked inside the cars 

I saw only white faces in them. 

These were European settlers. ^3P' 

Following the cars were cyclists 

With black faces. 

They were poor Africans. 

Refrain. The Africans say, 

Give us, give us cars, too, 
Give us, give us our land 
That we may rule ourselves. 

I stood still but thinking 

How and why it is that white faces 

Travel by car while black faces travel by cycle. 

At last I found out that it was that house, 

The Parliamentary House that is composed of Europeans, 

In other words, because this country is ruled by 

White faces, these white faces do not want 

Anything good for black faces. (Ibid.: 19) 

Sharp political comment and demand can also be conveyed: 

When talking about democracy [the English word] 

We must teach these Europeans 

Because they do not know. 

See here in Africa they bring their clothes 

But leave democracy in Europe. 


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10. Topical and Political Songs 287 

Refrain. Go back, go back and 
Bring true democracy. 

We are no longer asleep 

We are up and about democracy 

We have known for a long time. 

We are the majority and we demand 

A majority in the Legislative Council. (Rhodes 1962: 20) 

How far removed these songs are from the Mau Mau emphasis on secrecy 
can be seen from the fact that a few of these A.N.C. songs are in fact in 
English— a way of applying pressure on Europeans. 

The open and public nature of Northern Rhodesian party songs also 
comes out in the election campaign fought in 1962. Songs, usually in Bemba, 
were a recognized part of mass meetings. Mulford describes a typical rally: 

Thousands were packed in an enormous semi-circle around the large 
official platform constructed by the youth brigade on one of the huge ant 
hills. Other ant hills nearby swarmed with observers seeking a better view of 
the speakers. Hundreds of small flags in UNIP's colours were strung above 
the crowd. Youth brigade members, known as 'Zambia policemen' and 
wearing lion skin hats, acted as stewards and controlled the crowds when 
party officials arrived or departed. UNIP'S jazz band played an occasional 
calypso or jive tune, and between each speech, small choirs sang political 
songs praising UNIP and its leaders. 

Kaunda will politically get Africans freed from the English, 

Who treat us unfairly and beat us daily. 

UNIP as an organization does not stay in one place. 

It moves to various kinds of places and peoples, 

Letting them know the difficulties with which we are faced. 

These whites are only paving the way for us, 

So that we come and rule ourselves smoothly. (Mulford 1964: 133-4) 

These UNIP songs were not confined to statements of policy and aspiration 
('These whites are only paving the way for us . . .'), but also sometimes gave 
precise instructions for the actual voting, a matter of great importance in 
campaigns among an inexperienced electorate. One particularly infectious 
calypso sung in English gave the necessary instructions: 

Upper roll voting papers will be green. 

Lower roll voting papers will be pink. 

Chorus. Green paper goes in green box. 

Pink paper goes in pink box. (Ibid.: 134-5) 

These three examples of the use of political songs, drawn from very different 
political situations, show something of the flexibility of this particular 


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288 Oral Literature in Africa 

medium. Songs can be used to veil a political message from opponents, 
to publicize it yet further, to whip up popular support, or to pressurize 
its enemies. In different contexts, songs can have the effect of intensifying 
factional differences, or of encouraging national unity 13 They can focus 
interest on the image of the leader (or of the opponent) and on the specific 
political aims of the party. Their effectiveness in reaching mass audiences 
in countries without a tradition of written communication cannot be 
exaggerated. Songs can be picked up and learnt by heart, transmitted orally 
from group to group, form a real and a symbolic link between educated 
leader and uneducated masses— in short, perform all the familiar functions 
of political propaganda and comment. 

Figure 19. 'The Most Wonderful Mende Musician with his Accordion': 
Mr Salla Koroma, Sierra Leone. 

13 See Nurse 1964; Sachs 1966, also, on Ugandan rebel songs in the context of an independent 
African state, K. Alnaes (unpublished). 

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10. Topical and Political Songs 289 

Little has been written about the literary quality and form of these political 
songs; most of them have been collected by those interested primarily in 
their political content. But it does not necessarily follow that, just because 
they have a clear political function, there are therefore no artistic conventions 
observed by composer or singers, or that they can necessarily be dismissed 
as of no serious artistic interest. It seems that in some cases the songs are 
based on traditional literary forms of one kind or another. Praise of political 
leaders fits with the traditional interest in panegyric 14 and among some 
peoples (e.g. Kikuyu or Ndebele) old war songs are sometimes used in new 
contexts for political pressure or intimidation (Leakey 1954: 56; Afr. Music 
2.4, 1961: 117) while among the Somali the traditional and serious gabay 
form is now commonly used for political propaganda (Andrzejewski and 
Lewis 1964: 48). In other cases one of the dominant models would seem 
to be that of the Christian hymn, an influence apparent not only in the 
case of Mau Mau but also, among others, with the C.P.P. in Ghana or the 
Nigerian N.C.N.C. (see e.g. Hodgkin 1961: 136). But how far the artistic 
conventions of the originals are carried over into the political adaptations 
is by no means clear. 

What does appear certain is that there will remain plenty of opportunity 
to study the literary quality of the songs, for they show no signs of 
dying out. Indeed their contemporary relevance is demonstrated— if 
demonstration is needed— in the action of the Nigerian military rulers in 
1966 in banning political songs as part of their attempt to curb political 
activity, or the Tanzanian government's appeal to musicians in 1967 to 
help to spread its new policies of socialism and self-reliance to the people 
through song. It is too easy to assume that this means of oral propaganda 
is bound to disappear with increasing literacy and 'modernization', as if 
newspapers and written communications were somehow the only 'natural' 
and 'modern' way of conducting political propaganda. On the contrary it 
is possible that the spread of the transistor radio may in fact add fresh 
impetus to political songs. 

14 Cf. the Shona praise poems with modern political overtones (Fortune 1964: 108) and the 
use of 'griots' for electioneering in Senegamhia (Gamble 1957: 80). 


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290 Oral Literature in Africa 


Figure 20. Radio. Topical and political songs, already strong in Africa, 

receive yet further encouragement by the ubiquitous presence of local 

radio (courtesy of Morag Grant). 

Oral Literature in Africa.indd 290 

8/28/12 12:58 PM 


11. Children's Songs and 

Lullabies and nursery rhymes. Children's games and verses; Southern Sudanese 
action songs. 

Little systematic interest has been taken in children's verse in Africa, and 
though isolated instances have been recorded this has been done without 
any discussion of context or local significance. 1 On the published evidence 
it is not clear, for instance, how far the previous lack of a distinct body 
of schoolchildren in most African societies affected the specificity of 
children's verse as distinct from that of other groups, or how far the oral 
compositions now current in the increasing number of schools parallel 
similar phenomena recorded elsewhere. Nevertheless, some remarks 
on what is known to occur in Africa may be relevant here, not least if its 
shortcomings provoke further research or synthesis. 2 I shall discuss first 
lullabies (and other songs designed for children but primarily transmitted 
by adults) and secondly the rhymes and songs that tend to be for a slightly 
older age-group and are regarded as belonging to the children themselves 
in their own play 

Though see Tucker 1933; Griaule 1938a: 205-75; Adam 1940: 131-4; Gbadamosi and Beier 
1959: 53-8; Beart 1955; Blacking 1967. 

Further material can almost certainly be found which so far has achieved only local 
circulation, e.g. Beier and Gbadamosi, Ibadan, n.d. (Yoruba children's poems), and 
collections made by local teachers and others. Children's songs are also sometimes 
included on recordings published by the International Library of African Music 
(e.g. five Tswana children's singing games TR III). 


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292 Oral Literature in Africa 


Lullabies provide a good example of the way in which what might be 
expected to be a simple, 'natural', and spontaneous expression of feeling 
in all societies — a mother singing to her child— is in fact governed by 
convention and affected by the particular constitution of the society. 

One major factor is the question of who has the main responsibility for 
looking after a child. Among the Ngoni, for instance, a kind of upper-class 
group in Malawi, there were few lullabies: most Ngoni women employed 
nurse-maids from other groups to look after their children. Something 
similar was true among the rank-conscious Nyoro of Uganda. There, 
however, the nurses commonly sang their own lullabies to their charges, 
expressing their feelings about the mothers' attitude: 

Ha! that mother, who takes her food alone. 

Ha! that mother, before she has eaten. 

Ha! that mother she says, 'Lull the children for me'. 

Ha! that mother when she has finished to eat. 

Ha! that mother she says 'Give the child to me'. (Bansisa 1936: 110) 

One of the main raisons d'etre of such lullabies among Nyoro nurses would 
in fact seem to be, not primarily the lulling of the child at all, but an indirect 
comment on their own position, 'for they were afraid of making direct 
requests to their masters and therefore they always expressed what they 
wanted in lullabies'. (Bansisa 1936: 110) 

Other African lullabies fit more easily into our common picture of a 
mother concentrated on the needs of her child; but even in these the 
tone and purpose may vary. Some lay the greatest emphasis on the idea 
of rocking the child to sleep, often brought out by the rhythm and liquid 
vowel sounds of the original. Here, for instance, is the first verse of a long 
Swahili lullaby: 

Lululu, mwana (wa) lilanji, 
Luluhi, mwana (wa) kanda! 
Luluhi, mwana (wa) lilanji, 
Lululu, mwana (wa) kanda! 

(Lululu, Kindchen, warum weinst du? 

Lululu, verwohntes kleines Kind! 

Lululu, Kindchen, warum weinst du? 

Lululu, verwohntes kleines Kind!) (Von Tiling 1927: 291-2) 


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11. Children's Songs and Rhymes 293 

and the same soothing repetitive sounds come in one of the commonest 
Zulu lullabies: 

Thula, thula, thula, mntanami, 

Ukhalelani na? 

Ushaywa ubani? 

Thula mntanami, umam'akekho 

(Peace, peace, peace, my child, 

Why weepest thou? 

Who annoys? 

Peace, child, mother is not home). (Dhlomo 1947: 7) 3 

Other songs seem to represent more the mother's delight in playing with 
her child than a desire to soothe it, 4 or a detached and good-humoured 
comment as in the lullaby a Dogon mother sings to the child on her back: 

Ou est partie la mere du petit? 

Partie puiser de l'eau. 

Pas revenue de puiser l'eau. 

Partie piler la feuille de baobab 

Pas revenue de piler la feuille 

Partie preparer les plats 

Pas revenue de preparer les plats 

Sur la falaise, sur la falaise, un oeuf de poule est suspendu! 

where the last line vividly pictures the way the little child's bottom is 
perched like an egg on his mother's steep back (Griaule 1938a: 226). The 
Kamba mother also pictures her own absorption in her child and her 
neglect of other things for his sake, viewing her own attitude with a certain 

Mother, 5 mother of the child, leave off crying, poverty! 
You have come, you have surpassed me in crying. 6 
And even if it is the rain which rains, 

3 See also slightly different versions in Curtis 1920; Vilakazi 1938: 120. The reference to the 
mother's absence may be just a conventional part of the song, or may, if taken literally, 
indicate that this lullaby too was much sung by nurses. Some other Zulu lullabies 
(isihlabelelo) are made up specially by the mother for individual children with whom 
they are intimately connected, so that each individual has his isihlabelelo, 'the song of his 
childhood, regarded as something essentially his own' (Krige 1936: 338-9). 

4 e.g. the Swahili song given by Von Tiling 1927: 290. 

5 Kamba children are often called 'mother' by their own mothers 

6 i.e. I am glad that you came to me, but I never cried so much when I was a baby. 


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294 Oral Literature in Africa 

I put away the tree/ I shall call my mother. 
And even if it is the Masai, 8 

Who carries spear and shield, I put away the tree. 

I shall call you, I shall lull to sleep on my arm, mother. 

I shall not hear the goats who are bleating. (Lindblom iii, 1934: 51) 

Like many other lullabies, those of the Rundi are characterized by rhythm 
and cadence as well as the use of onomatopoeic words. But they also seem 
notably meditative in tone. The mother expresses and comments on her 
own feelings and on her expectations of the attitudes of others: 

O ce qui me donne du travail, je t'aime. 

Demain de bonne heure nous causerons. 

De tres bonne heure, des qu'il fera clair. 

Viens que je te caresse (en te donnant de petits coups). 

Endors-toi, mets fin a ma solitude. 

Ecoutons s'il y a des ennemis. 

Mon roi, mon roi. 

Tranquille! que je te frotte d'odoriferants 

Qui t'accompagnent chez le roi (qui te font arriver jusque chez le roi). 

Tranquille! sommeille sur le dos. 

Ta belle-mere est sterile. 

Elle te donnerait du tabac (au lieu de nourriture). 

Meme si la bouillie ne manque pas. (Zuure 1932: 352) 

There are also rhymes or songs for grown-ups to recite to children, distinct 
both from lullabies and from ordinary adult songs. The Zulu are said to 
have many 'nursery songs' in both rural and urban areas, among them one 
made up of an amusing combination of clicks to teach children the correct 
pronunciation (Qhuweqha weqhuweqha, I Qhingqilithi qh! etc.) (Vilakazi 
1938: 121). Several examples of these rhymes for children are included in 
Griaule's comprehensive study Jenx dogons. One is for finger play: 

Le petit doigt a dit; oncle j'ai faim 

L'annulaire a dit: nous allons recevoir (a manger) 

Le majeur a dit: demandons 

L'index a dit: volons 

Le pouce a dit: je n'en suis pas (pour voler). 

Depuis ce temps, le pouce s'est ecarte des autres doigts. (Griaule 1938a: 224) 

i.e. digging stick. Women are usually very busy in their gardens at the start of the rainy 
season, but this mother is thinking only of her child. 

For some further references to lullabies, besides those already mentioned, see e.g. Nketia 
1958b (Akan); de Rop 1965; Coupez 1959; Beart 1955: 60ff. (various lullabies from West 
Africa); Sempebwa 1948 (Ganda); 1949; Anya-Noa 1962-63; Belinga 1965: 23ff. 


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11. Children's Songs and Rhymes 295 

The next song is to stop a small child crying by tickling up his arm: 

Singe noir 

Dans la main de mon fils 

Ai mis un pelye [fruit] casse 

L'a enleve puis l'a mange 

Puis ca, puis ca, puis ca. 

Q.a, gergerger .... (Griaule 1938a: 225) 

There does not seem to be evidence of a large body of specialized nursery 
rhymes in any African society to the same extent as in English tradition, for 
example. However, it is hard to believe that it is only in Zulu and Dogon— two 
of the most comprehensively studied African cultures— that rhymes of 
the kind quoted can be found, and it is very possible that further research 
will reveal similar nursery-rhyme forms in many other African societies. 9 


Like children elsewhere, African children seem to have the familiar range 
of games and verse for their own play— nonsense songs, singing games, 
catch rhymes, and so on. They also engage in riddle-asking and in other 
games and dances that cannot be treated here (see Ch. 15). 

Before quoting instances of such children's verses, one has to sound a 
note of caution. Obviously, what is to count as 'children's verse' in a given 
society depends on the local classification of 'children', and one cannot 
necessarily assume that the 'children's songs' of another society are directly 
comparable with those of one's own. In English society, for example, the 
contemporary concept of 'a child' is closely connected with the idea of a 
school population, a partly separate community of school children with 
their conventions and lore to some extent opposed to those of adults. It was 
suitable therefore that the main sources for the Opies' classic work (1959) 
on children's verse should have been the schools. But this close association 
of children and formal schools does not hold true in all areas of Africa— and 
was even less true in the past— and one cannot necessarily assume the same 
clear-cut separation between the interests and orientations of children and 
those of adults. 

9 They are sometimes mentioned in passing for other peoples, e.g. Tracey 1929: 97 (nursery 
rhymes among Kalanga, Southern Rhodesia); Beart 1955, Ch. 6 (West Africa); Adali- 
Mortti 1958: 39 (nursery rhymes among the Ewe and other West African peoples); 
Hillelson 1918 (Arabic); Simmons 1955: 420-1 (Efik); Lambert 1959: 78. 


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296 Oral Literature in Africa 

This is not to say that there are no local or traditional ways of marking 
off the age-group of children from that of the adult world, merely that 
these do not necessarily parallel those of Western Europe. It is common 
for a ceremonial initiation to mark a clear dividing-line between childhood 
and maturity often taking place at around the age of puberty but in some 
societies (or with some individuals) this may be much earlier or much later. 
In some cases, initiation may be as young as, say, seven or eight years old, 
and the special initiation songs that are so often a feature of this ceremony 
might seem to parallel songs sung by similar age-groups in other societies. 
In fact they may be quite different in intention; they are to be sung by the 
children qua initiates (i.e. officially no longer children) and are often taught 
them by their elders. They cannot then be regarded as children's songs in 
the sense we are using the term here. In some African societies, again, there 
is strong pressure from children, as they get older, to prove themselves 
ready to enter the adult world. This means that, besides having their own 
verse and games, they are likely to try to master certain of the songs and other 
activities regarded as suitable for adults, and, indeed, may be encouraged to 
do so. Among the Ila and Tonga of Zambia, for instance, ziyabilo songs in 
praise of cattle and other possessions are sung by grown-up men; but many 
of these adult ziyabilo were in fact composed by their singers when they were 
still young boys minding their father's cattle in the bush. The child thus 
models himself and his verse on his father and other adult men rather than 
concentrating on a special type appropriate to children (Jones 1943: 12-13). 

One way in which children are often separated from other groups is in 
the kind of work they are expected to do, and there are sometimes special 
songs associated with such tasks. These include the light-hearted songs 
sung by the young Limba boys who spend long weeks in the rainy seasons 
in farm shelters scaring away the birds and animals from the ripening rice, 
or the children's song among the Dogon, sung to discourage various birds 
from plundering the millet: 

Oiseau, sors! 

goro sors! 

bandey sors! 

Pour vous le mil n'est pas mur. 

II n'est pas l'heure de manger le mil vert 

Diarrhee du ventre. 

Ou il est parti le guerisseur de la diarrhee? 

II est parti a Banan 10 

10 A nearby village. 


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11. Children's Songs and Rhymes 297 

II est parti a Banan; ce n'est pas le moment de venir. 

Oiseau sors! 

Tourterelle sors! 

Pigeon sors. (Griaule 1938n: 220) 

If the exact nature of 'children's verse' must be seen as depending partly on 
the particular ideas of each society about age structure, assignment of tasks, 
and behaviour expected of the various age-groups, it does nevertheless seem 
that in most African societies children do to some extent separate themselves 
off from adults in at least some play activities and have at least some rhymes 
and songs of their own. This is encouraged by the fact that many of them 
live in large family groupings, with much time spent outside their own 
homes in the open air rather than in small, enclosed family circles. Nowadays, 
too, there is the additional factor of the increasing number of schools. 

Nonsense songs, tongue-twisting rhymes, and trick verses are all 
documented. Ibo girls, for instance, sing a nonsense rhyme which could be 
translated as 'Oh, oh, oh, oh, / girls agree / tall girl, Iruka / koko yams, / sour, 
sour koko yams, / he goat sour', 11 and tongue-twisters are recorded among 
the Mbete of West Central Africa and others: 

Kusa le podi kudi — Le liseron enlace le poteau. 

Kudi le podi kusa — Le poteau enlace le liseron 


Mva o kwadi nama — Le chien attrapa l'animal. 

nama o txwi mva — L'animal mordit le chien. (Adam 1940: 133) 

The nonsense frequently takes the form of a kind of follow-up or progressive 
rhyme, usually in dialogue. In one form or another, this type of verbal play 
has been recorded from several parts of the continent. 12 The sequences may 
be just for fun or may also include a definite competitive content making 
up a kind of game. This is true of the Moru of the Southern Sudan where 
the children divide into two sides, one of which asks the questions. The 
answer depends on remembering the right sequence of words quickly 
enough, and those who get it wrong are ridiculed: 

A. A'di ru doro maro ni ya? Who has taken my bowl? 

B. Kumu au. Kumu has. 

11 lyoo, o I Abo, kzvekioe, I ihwu, Iruka I ede I bwaloka, okabwakde, I nkpi bwaloka (Thomas 1913 iii: 51). 

12 e.g. the West African Dogon (Griaule 1938a: 212-14) and possibly Fulani (if the examples 
of 'chain-rhymes' cited by Arnott 1957: 393ff . are intended for children, which seems not 
improbable), as well as the instances from the Swazi (South Africa), Mbete (West Central 
Africa), and Moru (Southern Sudan) mentioned below. Cf. also Gamble 1959: 82-3 
(Wolof, Mandingo, and Fula), Blacking 1967: 101; 102; 116-17 (Venda); and catchword 
compositions (for adults) in Malawi (Macdonald 1882, i: 50-1). 


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298 Oral Literature in Africa 

A. Kumu a'di? Who's Kumu? 

B. Kumu Ngeri. Kumu son of Ngeri. 

A. Ngeri a'di? Who's Ngeri? 

B. Ngeri Koko. Ngeri son of Koko. 

A. Koko a'di? Who's Koko? 

B. Koko Lire. Koko son of Lire. 

A. Lire a'di? Who's Lire? 

B. Lire Kide. Lire son of Kide. 

A. Kide a'di? Who's Kide? 

B. Kide Langba. Kide son of Langba. 

A. Langba a'di? Who's Langba? 

B. Langba Kutu. Langba son of Kutu. 

A. Kutu a'di? Who's Kutu? 

(ending up fortissimo) 

B. Kutu temele cowa Kutu's a sheep in the forest 
Dango udute nyorli. The bulls are fast asleep. 

(Mynors 1941: 206) 

Sometimes the verbal parallelism is less exact, as in the Swazi 'children's 
part-song' in which the children are divided into two groups that take turns 
in singing a line, then join together at the end. It is not an action rhyme, but 
depends on the words and tune alone for its attraction: 

A. Ye woman beyond the river! 

B. We! (responding to the call) 

A. What are you dusting? 

B. I am dusting a skin petticoat. 

A. What is a skin petticoat? 

B. It is Mgamulafecele. 

A. What have they killed? 

B. They have killed a skunk. 

A. Where did they take it? 

B. To Gojogojane. 

A. Who is Gojogojane? 

B. He-who-eats-cow dung-when-hungry. 

A. For whom would he leave (some of) it? 

B. He would leave (some) for Shishane. 

A. and B. 

Shishane is not to blame, 

The blame is for Foloza, 

He who says he alone is handsome. 

The hoes of Mbandzeni 

They go knocking against him, 

The knocker of Njikeni. 

Magagula, Magagula keep the clod of earth tightly squeezed in your — . 

(given as quoted in Englebrecht 1930: 10-11) 

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11. Children's Songs and Rhymes 299 

A more complicated form is quoted from the Mbete where the rhyme builds 
up in a cumulative way. Two children take part: 

A. Sedi a nde? La gazelle ou est-elle? 

B. Sedi miye nkwi. La gazelle est allee au bois. 

A. Omo a nde? La premiere ou est-elle? 

B. Omo milono sedi o nkwi. La premiere a suivi la gazelle au bois. 

A. Oywole a nde? La deuxieme ou est-eslle? 

B. Oywole milono omo, La deuxieme a suivi la premiere, 
Omo milono sedi o nkwi. La premiere a suivi la gazelle au bois. 

A. Otadi a nde? La troisieme ou est-elle? 

B. Otadi milono oywole, La troisieme a suivi la deuxieme, 
Oywole milono omo, La deuxieme a suivi la premiere, 

Omo milono sedi o nkwi ... La premiere a suivi la gazelle au bois . . . 
and so on up to the tenth which involves the answerer repeating the whole 
sequence (Adam 1940: 132-3). 13 

Other types of rhymes and songs are also recorded. There is the kind of 
catch rhyme exemplified by the Yoruba: 

Who has blood? Chorus. Blood, blood. 

Has a goat blood? „ Blood, blood. 

Has a sheep blood? „ Blood, blood. 

Has a horse blood? „ Blood, blood. ^ 

Has a stone blood? „ — — 

in which the point of the game is to try to get some child to say 'blood' after 
an inanimate object. A mistake results in laughter and sometimes a friendly 
beating (Gbadamosi and Beier 1959: 55; 67). There also seem to be plenty of 
songs enjoyed for their own sakes or for their usefulness in mocking other 
children. A Dogon child with his head recently shaved will be greeted with 

Crane nu, lonlaire! 

Viens manger un plat de riz, 

Viens manger un plat de potasse, 

Viens manger un plat de mil. (Griaule 1938a: 230) 14 

while a Ganda child who has not washed may hear 

Mr. Dirty-face passed here 

And Mr. Dirtier-face followed. (Sempebwa 1948: 20) 

Or again, a kind of general comment may be made as in the humorous and 
rueful song by a Yoruba child; 

Hunger is beating me. 

The soapseller hawks her goods about. 

13 Adam also gives an example where the response directly echoes the second half of the 
query (1940: 132). 

14 Some of these are in the 'chain-rhyme' form. 


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300 Oral Literature in Africa 

But if I cannot wash my inside, 

How can I wash my outside? (Gbadamosi and Beier 1959: 54) 

So far we have concentrated on rhymes and songs that are mainly 
valued for their words or music rather than their relation to action. But 
there are also many examples of songs sung to accompany games or 
dances, or forming an integral part of them. A minor example would 
be the counting-out rhymes of the Dogon where those partaking are 
gradually eliminated according to whose leg the last syllable falls on at 
each subsequent repetition. 2 Yoruba children similarly use a rhyme as 
part of a hide-and-seek game. The searcher faces the wall singing his 
nonsense song while the others hide. When he reaches the question part 
of the song the others must reply in chorus, giving him a clue to their 

Now we are playing hide and seek. 

Let us play hide and seek. 

Hey, tobacco seller, 

This is your mother here, 

Whom I am wrapping up in those leaves. 

I opened the soup pot 

And caught her right inside 

Stealing meat! 

Who nails the root? 

Chorus. The carpenter. 
Who sews the dress? 

Chorus. The tailor, (etc.) 

(Gbadamosi and Beier 1959: 55; 68) 

Other action songs are more complicated in that they are based on imitation 
or on definite set dance patterns. Shona children, for instance, have an 
imitative song in which they circle round and round imitating an eagle 
catching small chickens (Taylor 1926: 38). Again, there are the Hottentot 
action songs based on the common principles of a ring or of two rows 
facing each other (Stopa 1938: 100-1). 

A more detailed account of action songs is given by Tucker, drawing 
on his observation of children at mission schools in the Sudan in the 
1930s (Tucker 1933). His conclusion is that the songs and games were not 
introduced by the missionaries themselves (or at least not consciously), but 
whatever the truth of this, it is in any case suitable to end by quoting from 
this account in some detail. Schools are becoming increasingly important 
in the lives of more and more children in Africa, and it is likely that similar 


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11. Children's Songs and Rhymes 301 

singing games— from whatever source — are now widespread (and thus 
accessible to study) among school groups. 

The children whose round games were studied were mostly boys 
from various Southern Sudanese peoples (Nuer, Shilluk, Dinka, Bari, and 
Lotuko). The games are played on a moonlit night in the dry season and 
the singing, mostly in strophe and antistrophe, is led by one of the boys 
and accompanied by hand-clapping, foot-thumping, or the action of the 
game. Often the words themselves count for little. Sometimes the meaning 
is almost slurred out of recognition, and in this 'the Shilluks and Nuers 
are the greatest offenders, some of their songs consisting of mere nonsense 
syllables, which they themselves do not pretend to understand. (In such 
cases they usually give out that the words are "Dinka")' (Tucker 1933: 166). 
The translations are therefore rather free. 

Most of the singing games are based on the principle of a ring, the 
players squatting or standing in a circle. In one, the equivalent of 'Hunt 
the slipper', the players sit in a circle with their feet under them. The 
leader in the middle of the ring has to find a bracelet which is being passed 
surreptitiously round the ring. He sings, answered by the others as they 
slap their knees in time to the song: 

Leader. Bracelet of my son's wife, 

Chorus. I want I want now, bracelet of poor Bana, 

It is lost 

repeated over and over until the leader successfully challenges one of the 
circle who, if caught with the bracelet, has to take the leader's place in 
the centre. (Ibid.: 166-7) Another action song based on a ring is a type of 
counting-out game: 

The boys sit in a circle, or, it might be, at right-angle, with their feet stuck out 
straight in front of them. An elder boy squats on his haunches before them 
and chants a queer formula, much longer than any European equivalent, 
tapping the feet as he chants, till the last word is said. The foot last touched 
is 'out' and the owner must sit on it. He goes on in this way till everybody 
is sitting on both his feet, i.e. practically kneeling. He then begins with the 
first boy of the line. There is a formula and response, and then he bows 
down in front of the boy with his eyes shut and his head almost touching 
the boy's knees. The boy has to stand up without touching the man's head 
with his knees. (He may use his hands to help himself, if he wishes.) If the 
man hears the boy's knees creak as he rises, the boy is made to stand on one 
side. If his knees do not creak, he stands somewhere else. Soon we have two 
groups — creaky and non-creaky knees. (Of course, the longer one is forced 


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302 Oral Literature in Africa 

to sit on one's feet, the greater the likelihood of creaky knees!) . . . The game 
ends with the non-creaky knees pursuing the creaky knees and punishing 
them (Tucker 1933: 169-70). 

Another ring game is the Lotuko one in which a boy in the centre, 'the ape', 
has to try to grab the leg of one of the boys dancing round him in a ring and 
to upset him. If he succeeds, they change places: 

Here he goes around to steal 
Break away 

Bad ape. 
Break away 

Bad ape. (Ibid.: 170) 

There are also a number of games based on the idea of the arch or the line. 
In one the boys line up in two opposing ranks and one line advances slowly 
towards the other, which retreats, both sides singing: 

The foreigner 

Chin of a goat 

The foreigner comes striding haughtily 

With his red skin. 

This is repeated several times, the two lines taking it in turn to advance. 
Suddenly the pace and verse change. Those advancing now run stiff-legged 
and try to kick the others' shins, again singing over and over: 

Why does the stranger hurry so? 

Ha! ha! hurry so. 

Why does the stranger hurry so? 

Ha! ha! hurry so. (Ibid.: 182) 

Tucker comments that 'this game is definitely a hit at the white man. The 
"chin of a goat" in the first song refers to the beards of the R.C. missionaries 
(beards being considered unseemly among the Nilotic tribes); while the 
kicking in the second song is thought to be a skit on the average official's 
use of his boots when angry or impatient' (Tucker 1933: 183). 

Chasing and following games also take place to sung words. In the 
Acholi version of 'Follow my leader' the boys stand in single file, holding 
each other's waists, and the leader takes them in a closing circle to the 
words of the song 'close in', then worms his way out again, singing 'open 
out'. The words of the song form the background. The verse 'A dula dul 
dula na dula dul. A dula ye. Dula na dula dul. A dula kuk! Dula na dula 
dul. A dula ye' means 'close in', while the same tune, with gonya instead of 
dula, means 'open out' (Ibid.: 179). 


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11. Children's Songs and Rhymes 303 

Finally there are imitations of animals. Some of these occur in chasing 
games like the Shilluk 'Lion and sheep', but in others the imitations seem 
to be taken more seriously. In one a boy doubles himself up to represent a 
frog and tries to jump backwards in a circle without falling over, in time to 
his companions' song: 

Jump up and down, 

Up and down. 

Jump up and down, 

Up and down. 

I shall jump again, 

Up and down. 

I shall jump again, 

Up and down? (Tucker 1933: 185) 

In 'Bush-buck in a trap' the success of the game depends on the exactness 
of the leader's imitation of the animal: 

The boys stand in a ring, holding hands. One boy is in the middle, and 
he is 'Gbodi', the bush-buck. He sings suiting his actions to the words, and 
the others reply, copying him. 
Thus, for example: 

Gbodi shake your head, Gbodi shake your head. 


Gbodi crouch down, Gbodi crouch down. 


Gbodi scratch your ear, Gbodi scratch your ear. 


Gbodi stamp your foot, Gbodi stamp your foot. 


Gbodi snort and snuffle, Gbodi snort and snuffle. 


Gbodi break away now, Gbodi break away now. 


At the words 'Gbodi break away now', he makes a wild dash for safety, 
and tries to break through the circle. If he fails, he has to act 'Gbodi' again 
(Ibid.: 184). 

These are only a few of the singing games recorded by Tucker, 15 and he 
himself claims to give only a random selection. But even this, he considers, 
'picked up casually from different corners of the Southern Sudan, and 

15 He gives twenty-four in all, fully illustrated with the music, original, and (usually) 


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304 Oral Literature in Africa 

covering primitive races with mutually unintelligible languages, should 
serve to show the main foundations on which the great majority of 
children's singing games are built . . . These foundations are, to all intents 
and purposes, identical with those that underlie the forms of European 
children's games, viz. the ring, the arch and the line' (Tucker 1933: 184). 

It seems clear that many such singing games and other types of children's 
songs remain to be collected or analysed. 16 At the moment little can be said 
about the distribution of different types, the transmission of these forms 
among the children themselves, the degree of individual originality as 
against conventional forms, 17 or the incidence of topical or other comment. 
What does seem certain is that the growing numbers of school children in 
contemporary Africa are likely more and more to develop their own distinct 
and conventional songs and games — increasingly it is in the schools that 
these can most easily and fruitfully be studied. 

16 They are mentioned (or, in a few cases, described) for e.g. Kamba (Mbiti 1959: 259); 
Ganda (Sempebwa 1948: 20); Ewe (Jones 1959: 16-39); Ashanti (Nketia 1962: 67); 
Tswana (1933: 80); Mpama-Bakutu (Windels 1939: 19); children in Leopoldville 
(Comhaire-Sylvain 1949, 1952); Ibo (Nettl 1954a: 238-9); Efik (Simmons 1958); Hausa 
(Krieger 1955). 

17 The Dogon examples collected by Griaule suggest the same kind of variations on a single 
theme for some of the verses as is evident in the many variants of the 'same' rhyme in the 
Opies' collection of English school children's rhymes 


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12. Prose Narratives 

I. Problems and Theories 

Introductory. Evolutionist interpretations. Historical-geographical school. Classification 
and typologies. Structural-functional approach. Conclusion. 

The existence of stories in Africa is well known. One of the first things 
students of African oral literature or of comparative literature generally 
discover about Africa is the great number of so-called 'folktales.' They will 
hear above all of the many animal tales that so vividly and humorously 
portray the tricks of the spider, the little hare, or the antelope, or exhibit 
the discomfiture of the heavy and powerful members of the animal world 
through the wiles of their tiny adversaries. Less well known, but still 
familiar, are the many African tales set in the human world, about, say, the 
trials of a young man wooing a wife, the self-sacrifice of two friends for 
each other, or the triumph of the youngest, despised member of a family; 
and the famous 'myths' of the various African peoples about such subjects 
as the origin of death, of mankind, or of authority. 

In fact, all this is if anything too well known. So much has been 
published of and about this one literary form that its relative importance 
in the general field of African oral literature has been radically misjudged. 
Far from being 'the great form' in African literature, as even the author of 
a recent and well-informed work on Africa has asserted (Bohannan 1966: 137), 
tales and other prose narratives in fact generally appear to be markedly less 
important than the majority of poetic forms, in terms of complexity, of the 
relatively lesser specialism of their composers, and of the assessment of the 
people themselves. This, however, is seldom recognized. Owing to a series 
of secondary characteristics like the greater ease with which prose can 
be recorded and the way the nature of the tales (particularly those about 
animals) seemed to fit certain preconceptions about African mentality, these 


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308 Oral Literature in Africa 

stories have been published in large numbers and have caught the public 
eye to the almost total exclusion of the often more intrinsically interesting 

So much, indeed, has been published in this field that it would be easy to 
write not a chapter but a book surveying the present state of knowledge of 
this form of African literature. But to include too lengthy a description here 
of this single form of verbal art would inevitably present an unbalanced 
picture of African literature. These two chapters therefore will give only 
a brief summary of what is known about African prose narratives and 
the problems of analysis, and will concentrate on pointing to gaps in our 
knowledge rather than repeating what is already known. 1 

Because so much has been written and published over many years, 
this field of study has been particularly subject to the vicissitudes of 
anthropological theories and has reflected only too faithfully the rise and 
fall of fashions in interpretations of African (and 'primitive') cultures. As a 
result there are considerably more misconceptions and misunderstandings 
to clear away in the case of African prose than with poetry. Indeed, when 
one considers the vast amount published it is surprising how poor much 
of it is. Poor, that is, in the sense that so much is based on unquestioned 
assumptions and so little is said about many topics in which a student 
of literature would naturally be interested, like, for instance, the art or 

1 Most of the general accounts of African oral literature devote much or most of their 
space to a consideration of prose narratives, e. g. Herskovits 1961; Bascom 1964 (which 
includes a most useful list of collections of African stories); Berry 1961; Balandier 1956. 
Of the large and varied number of general anthologies of African stories, one could 
mention Seidel 1896; Basset 1903; Cendrars 1921; Meinhof 1921; Frobenius 1921-28 
(12 vols.); Radin 1952; Arnott 1962; Whiteley 1964. Special studies of various aspects of 
African stories include Klipple 1938 and Herskovits 1936 (comparative study of motifs); 
Mofokeng 1955; Von Sicard 1965; Tegnaeus 1950; Abrahamsson 1951 (studies mainly in 
the 'Scandinavian' tradition); Werner 1925, 1933 (surveys content of stories, including 
myths). Of the innumerable collections of stories from single societies or areas, the 
following are of interest either because of the collection itself or (more often) because of 
the accompanying discussion: Roger 1828 (Wolof); Theal 1886 (Xhosa); Chatelain 1894 
(Kimbundu); Cronise and Ward 1903 (Temne); Jacottet 1908 (Sotho); Junod ii, 1913: 191ff 
(Thonga); Tremearne 1913 (Hausa); Equilbecq 1913-16 (3 vols.) (West Africa); Smith and 
Dale ii, 1920, ch. 28 (Ila); Torrend 1921 (Zambia); Travele 1923 (Bambara); Doke 1927, 
1934 (Lamba); Lindblom 1928 (Kamba); Rattray 1930 (Akan); Herskovits 1958 (Fon); 
Stappers 1962 (Luba); Hulstaert 1965 (Mongo); Mbiti 1966 (Kamba); Finnegan 1967 
(Limba); Evans-Pritchard 1967 (Zande). See also the excellent article by Crowley (1967) 
which, though specifically about the Congo, is of wider relevance. For further references 
see General Bibliography and the useful analysis of collections plus bibliography in 
Bascom 1964; many of the recent collections (often very much in popular form) are by no 
means improvements on earlier collections from the same peoples. 


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12. Prose Narratives I. Problems and Theories 309 

originality of the individual composer, the nature of the audiences reached, 
the local assessment of the relative worth or seriousness of stories against 
other forms, or the position of the story-teller himself. So for all these 
reasons— the ready accessibility of some aspects, the misunderstandings 
or gaps in other respects— this section, unlike most others in the central 
part of this book, will tend to be argumentative and critical rather than 
descriptive and illustrative. 


Something has already been said in Chapter 2 about some of the many 
different approaches to the study of African oral art. These will not all 
be recapitulated here, but, even at the cost of some repetition, something 
further must be said about the special case of prose narratives; it is in 
this field— sometimes regarded as 'folklore' par excellence— that these 
various theories have found their most fluent and extreme expression. The 
end result has too often been to play down or explain away any literary 

One of the most influential of these theories, dating from the nineteenth 
century but casting a shadow even today, is the type of evolutionist 
interpretation of human history and society put forward, in various forms, 
by writers like Morgan, Tylor, or Frazer. Besides their application to the 
supposed unilinear evolution of institutions such as religion or marriage, 
these speculative historical generalizations could also be brought to bear on 
the nature and history of literature. In this field the word 'folklore' became 
popular as a term to describe the supposed customs, beliefs, and culture 
of both 'early' man and his presumed equivalents today: contemporary 
'primitive' peoples and the modern peasant, i.e. the 'folk' among whom 
could still, supposedly, be found traces of the earlier stages of unilinear 
human evolution. When apparently similar customs or beliefs could be 
detected in societies otherwise considered 'advanced' (in the opinion of the 
analyst), then they could be explained as 'survivals', remnants of the cruder, 
barbaric stages of the past. 'Folklore' even came to be defined as 'the study 
of survivals', with the implication that its subject-matter (which included 
'folktales') was basically crude, primitive, 'early', and, in many cases, due 
to old ideas passed on from previous generations. It was thus — to quote 
Frazer's words— 'due to the collective action of the multitude and cannot 
be traced to the individual influence of great men'). (Frazer 1919 i: vii) 


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310 Oral Literature in Africa 

The implication of these approaches for the study of oral literature is 
plain. Any type of oral prose narrative from whatever society could be, 
and was, referred to as 'folktale' and thus treated as a kind of 'survival' 
from an earlier and even more primitive state. In this way, the aspect of 
individual originality and authorship could be played down— or rather, 
the question of authorship not even raised; for once the word 'folktale' 
was used, collective tradition could be assumed and no question about 
individual creation could arise. A further relevant assumption was the still 
commonly mentioned 'fact' that all 'folktales' (and thus all oral narratives) 
have been handed down through generations from the remote past, most 
probably in a word-perfect form. Again, this questionable assumption drew 
attention away from problems of authorship or of contemporary relevance 
and variations, and from questions about the actual situations in which 
these stories are actually told. Moreover, because the tales could be treated 
as 'survivals', there was felt to be no need to apply to them the normal 
procedures of literary criticism or to relate them to the contemporary social 
and literary background, for this, it was assumed, was often alien to the 
real content of the stories. This approach also lent encouragement to the 
amateur collection and publication of isolated unrelated snippets of tales 
and proverbs; for when the whole idea of the subject of 'folklore' was that 
these 'folktales' were only scraps (survivals), there was no inducement to 
try to collect them systematically. So it is that, even recently, the journals 
are full of such articles as 'Four Babongo proverbs', or 'Two riddles and a 
folktale from the Ping Pong natives', with no attempt to relate the specimens 
to any background whatsoever or even to have collected anything more 
than the barest synopsis of the plot. 

By now the evolutionist framework from which these approaches sprang 
has been rejected in professional anthropological circles. Yet in spite of this, 
these assumptions about oral narratives still linger on. We read, for instance, 
in a recent collection of Hausa stories of the 'callousness or . . . macabre type of 
humour' in some stories being 'residues from the past', or how their 'animal 
and fairy stories are probably as old as the language and perhaps even older' 
(Johnston 1966: xxxi, xxxix); many similar instances could be cited. 

That these attitudes should still be attractive is not altogether surprising. 
The hidden implications of the term 'folktale' lead one astray at the 
outset— good reason for giving up this otherwise quite useful word. It is 
also pleasant enough to be able to concentrate on confident assertions about 
the great age of certain stories without needing to produce evidence (the 
bland 'probably' of the statement just quoted is typical here). This whole 


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12. Prose Narratives I. Problems and Theories 311 

approach absolves one from any systematic treatment of the more difficult 
and interesting problems. 

In fact the question of originality in oral literature is by no means a closed 
one. Contrary to the assumptions of many writers, the likelihood of stories 
having been handed down from generation to generation in a word-perfect 
form is in practice very remote. This whole concept, in fact, is much more 
plausible in the case of written than of oral literature. As already remarked in 
an earlier chapter, one of the main characteristics of oral literature is its verbal 
flexibility (even more marked, perhaps, with prose than with some types 
of verse). So that even if the basic plot did, in a given case, turn out really 
to date back centuries or millennia— and in one sense it is a truism that all 
stories (written or unwritten) have already been told— this would be only a 
very minor element in the finished work of art produced in the actual telling. 
The verbal elaboration, the drama of the performance itself, everything in fact 
which makes it a truly aesthetic product comes from the contemporary teller 
and his audience and not from the remote past. 

In any case, how significant is it if some of the content is old or 
derivative? Does this tempt us to ignore the literary significance of, say, 
Shakespeare's Othello or Joyce's Ulysses? The explaining away in terms of origin 
of subject-matter has really no more justification for oral than for written 
literature. To suppose otherwise is to assume that in non-literate cultures 
people inevitably accept passively the content in the narratives told them 
and are not tempted to add or embroider or twist— an assumption which, 
as will be clear already, there is no evidence to support. 


Evolutionist approaches, then, with their accompanying assumptions about 
the nature of oral prose narratives, both drew away attention from significant 
aspects of oral literature (including its literary value) and at the same time 
disseminated unfounded ideas about authorship and transmission. The 
second group of approaches to be discussed here has done no more than 
focus attention on certain questions to the exclusion of other equally interesting 
ones. These are the problems treated by the so-called historical-geographical 
or diffusionist school that originated in Finland but which also has much 
influence in America and elsewhere. 

This school asks questions about the exact historical and geographical 
origins of a particular story with the idea of tracing its journeys from one 
area to another. Unlike the evolutionists, these scholars take little interest 


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312 Oral Literature in Africa 

in generalized questions about origin, or in the relative primitiveness of 
different categories of tales. They aim to reconstruct the 'entire life history 
of the tale', working back to the first local forms, hence to the ultimate 
archetype from which they were all originally derived, in much the same 
way as literary scholars trace back a series of manuscript traditions to 
their first original. As an aid to the more effective carrying out of this aim, 
various classifications have been made to facilitate the recognition of the 
'same' tale in many areas so that its biography can more easily be plotted 
(see particularly Thompson 1961). Various classifications and indexes 
have been compiled, the best-known being Stith Thompson's monumental 
Motif-index of Folk-literature in which the various 'motifs' of 'folktales' are 
listed for easy reference and comparison (Thompson 1955). 2 

This general emphasis on questions about the life history of specific tales 
has been one of the dominating influences in the recent study of oral prose 
narratives (most often referred to by this school as 'folktales'). Many interesting 
similarities have been discovered in the plots of stories to be found in Africa 
and elsewhere— in Europe, in Arabia (notably in the Arabian Nights), in India, 
and, finally, in the New World, where they probably travelled with African 
slaves. Attempts have also been made, following this approach, to trace the 
historical and geographical origin of tales found in Africa. Certain plots, it has 
been concluded, can be reckoned as being indigenous to Africa. An example 
of this is the famous tale based on the idea of a tug of war in which two large 
animals (often the hippopotamus and the elephant) are induced by a smaller 
animal to pull against each other believing that their opponent was really the 
small weak animal, which had thus tricked them. 3 Another allegedly African 
motif is that of 'death' from a false message, in which the wrong message is 
given to mankind so that they have to undergo death instead of living forever 
(Klipple 1938: 55ff, also Abrahamsson 1951). Other motifs, it has been argued, 
come from outside Africa. The path of one of these— the 'root motif in which 
a crocodile is misled into releasing his victim's foot when told it is a root— has 

'Motifs' include plots, subject-matter, types of character and action, etc. A fairly wide 
definition is taken of 'folk literature' to cover folktales, myths, ballads, fables, medieval 
romances, fabliaux, exempla, local traditions, but not riddles or proverbs. Some African 
material is included. Similar works primarily concerned with Africa (though conceived 
on a much smaller scale) include Herskovits 1936; Klipple 1938; Clarke 1958; see also 
references in Ch. 2, p. 39, also for collections with comparative material along these lines, 
Lindblom 1928 vols. 1-2 and Von Sicard 1965. 

K 22 in Thompson's classification (Thompson 1955). A full comparative treatment of 
this motif using the historical-geographical method is given in Mofokeng 1955. 


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12. Prose Narratives I. Problems and Theories 313 

been traced through India and Europe by various South African writers. 4 
Other African motifs have been given a polygenetic origin or still remain to be 
analysed. In fact, in spite of the general influence of this approach, not many 
systematic studies of the life history of motifs in African tales have yet been 
completed. Yet plenty of preliminary material has been collected in that many 
editors of collections of African stories have said something about comparable 
motifs in Africa or elsewhere. 

The fascination of this approach, however, has sometimes blinded 
commentators to the significance of other aspects of African prose 
narratives. There has again been a tendency to play down the significance 
of the contemporary verbalization and performance of the story as a 
whole in favour of an attempt to trace back the detailed history of certain 
elements of its subject-matter. Local artistry, inventiveness, and meaning 
are minimized, and the concentration focused on external origins. 

The unbalanced nature of this approach can be illustrated by a specific 
example. This is a story taken from the Limba of Sierra Leone. It is quite 
obvious to any reader that the basic plot is a biblical one; in fact the outline 
plot was told to the narrator only a few years earlier. It is the tale of Adam 
and Eve, and even the names of the characters in Limba have remained more 
or less the same. Yet in its interpretation and telling by a Limba story-teller, 
the tale has become in almost every sense a truly Limba one. 

This is the story as told by Karanke Dema, a skilful Limba narrator, in 
1964. He opens by asking a friend, as well as myself, to 'reply' to him— that 
is to lead the audience participation that is so essential a part of the whole 
process of Limba story- telling. 

Adamu and Ifu 

Suri — reply to me. I am going to tell a story, about when the earth came out, 
how after long we were brought out, we Limba, how after long we came to 
do work, how we lived. I am going to tell it this evening. You Yenkeni [R. F.], 
by your grace, you are to reply to me. 

You see — Kami Masala (God), he was once up above. In the whole 
world then there were no people. So Kanu Masala thought; he said, T will 
take people to there.' What he brought out were two human beings — one 

See Mofokeng 1955, following up the D.Litt. thesis by S. C. H. Rautenbach 1949 (not seen; 
reference in Mofokeng 1955). Unfortunately most of this detailed analysis of African 
material by scholars working at the University of Witwatersrand apparently remains as 
yet unpublished. 


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314 Oral Literature in Africa 

man; one woman. What were their names? The man— he was Adamu. The 
woman — she was Ifu. (Ifu.) 5 Ifu. 

When he had brought them out, they came and lived [here]. They spent 
two days and nights— but they found nothing to eat. So they went to Kami 
Masala then. 

'We have come here to you.' 

Kami asked 'Any trouble?' 
'No. We — the reason we have come is this: you brought us out, you went and 

put us on the earth here; but we — hunger! Nothing for us to eat. Will we not 

die tomorrow?' 

Then Kami said, T will give you food.' Kanu came down. He came and 
showed them the trees in fruit. He showed them every tree in fruit for them 
to eat. 

'This is your food.' He showed them one — 'Don't eat this one oh!' It was 
like an orange; when it is in fruit it is red. 'Don't eat this one oh! This is a 
prohibited one. You are not to eat it.' 

Adamu said All right.' 

They lived there for long — they ate from those trees. They did no work. 
They did nothing except just live there, except that when they were hungry 
they went and ate. 

Then a snake got up there. He came and made love with the woman, Ifu. 
They travelled far in that love. 

Then the snake came near, the bangkiboro snake. 6 He came and said to 
the woman, Ifu, 

'Do you never eat from this tree?' 

Ifu said, 'No. We do not eat it. We were told before that we should not 
eat it, it is prohibited.' 

Then the snake said, 'Oh you! That tree — eat from it.' Ifu said, 'We do 
not eat it.' 

'Eat it! Would I lie to you? We share in love you and I. Just eat it. There is 
nothing wrong about it.' 

Ifu said, 'We do not eat it. If we eat it we are doing something wrong.' 

The snake said, 'Not at all. Just eat.' 

Ifu said, All right.' 

He picked it, he the snake. He went and gave it to Ifu. Ifu said, 'You eat first.' 

5 Suri, one of the listeners, repeats the name. 

6 A very long, red, and spotted fatal snake. 


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12. Prose Narratives I. Problems and Theories 315 

He the snake— he ate. Ifu took it. She ate one. The other one she kept for 

When Adamu came, she came and gave it to him. 

Adamu said, T will not eat this oh! We were told before that we should 
not eat it.' 

'Not at all', said Ifu. 

'Just eat it. There is nothing wrong about it.' Adamu refused. She implored 
him there. Adamu took the fruit, he ate the fruit. 

Now Kanu Masala— he saw this. He knew. 'Those people have broken 
the prohibition I gave them.' 

When they had eaten it, Adamu — his heart trembled. 'When Kanu 
Masala comes here tomorrow, this means we have done something wrong.' 

When Kanu Masala came down, Adamu was hiding now when he saw 
Kanu coming. He hid himself. Both of them were by now hiding themselves 
(seeing Kanu Masala) [another interjection by Suri]. When Kanu arrived he 
came and called, calling the man. 

Adamu! Adamu!' 

Now Adamu was afraid to reply— for he had eaten from the tree. He 
called him again. 
Adamu! Adamu!' 
He was just a bit afraid to reply. 
He called Ifu! Ifu!' 
Both of them were afraid to reply. 

He called Adamu again. Adamu replied. Adamu came. He came and 
asked him — 

'What made you eat from that tree really? I told you you were not to eat 
it. You took, you ate it just the same. What made you eat it?' 

Then Adamu said, Ah, my father. It was not me. It was the woman. She 
came and gave it to me — Ifu. I said, "I do not eat this." She said, "Just eat it." 
She has brought me into trouble.' 

Then Kanu called Ifu. 
'Ifu! Ifu! 

Ifu replied, 'Yes?' 
'Come here.' 

Ifu came near. 

He asked her, 'What made you give him from that tree for him to eat?' 

Then Ifu said, 'It was not me, my father; it was the serpent who came and 
gave me from the tree. He said "Eat it. It is food." I refused for long oh! He 


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316 Oral Literature in Africa 

said "Just eat it. There is nothing wrong about it." I ate it. What I left I came 
and gave to Adamu.' 

He called the serpent, the bangkiboro snake. The bangkiboro snake came. 
When he had come, he asked him. 

'What made you give those people from that tree for them to eat?' 

The bangkiboro snake said, 'I gave it to them, yes; there was nothing 
wrong about it at all.' 

Then Kanu said, 'For you, you have not done well. I told them they were 
not to eat from this tree. You came and gave it to them. You do not want 
them to prosper (lit. 'do not like their life'). It looks as if you — you will be 
parted from them. You will go into the bush once and for all. You will never 
again come out [to live] among human beings (Limba). When you meet a 
human, you will be killed. For you have not done well.' 

Since the bangkiboro snake went off into the bush — if you see a bangkiboro 
snake now with human beings, whenever they see each other, they kill him. 
That is why they hate each other. 

When the bangkiboro snake had gone into the bush, then Kanu Masala 


'You, because you were lied to today and agreed to it, and I told you 
before that you were not to have suffering but you did not agree to this — 
now you, you will have suffering. You will now stay behind Adamu. All 
you women now, when you are married to a man, you will live in his power. 
That is what I say. When you give birth, when you do that, you will have 
suffering. That is what I say. When you work now, after the man has cleared 
and hoed, you will weed. The rain will beat on you there. The sun will burn 
you there — as you think about your husband's sauce. 7 For that is what you 
chose. That is what you will do.' 

Then he said, 



'Because you were lied to by the woman and you agreed to it, you will 
begin to work. You will work now. When you want to get a wife you will 
have to woo her. Every man will have to give wealth for long to get her. 
When you have married several [wives] you will look for a house — you 
must build, you the man. You will have to get a farm for them to go to. That 
is what I give you. For you refused to live in the good fortune you had.' 

If you see now — we Limba we live now to work; the sun burns us; the 
rain soaks us; ha! we endure that suffering; if you want to get something 

7 The wife has the responsibility of growing or gathering the vegetables for the 'sauce.' 


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12. Prose Narratives I. Problems and Theories 317 

to eat you have to struggle for long — that began from the serpent, the 
bangkiboro snake. If you see that we hate each other, him and us— that is the 
only reason. Now the bangkiboro snake, when he sees a human, says, 'That 
man is coming to kill me'; and if you do not strengthen yourself, you the 
human, he will catch you, biting you. For he was driven out from among us. 
If you see how we live, we Limba, working— that was where it began. 

That is it, it is finished. 8 

To explain in detail how typical a Limba story this now is would 
involve a lengthy description of the types of content, style, and expression 
characteristic of the genre of oral literature the Limba call mboro 
(see Finnegan 1967: 49-103). We can only note one or two points here. There 
is the way in which the relationship between the snake and Eve is assumed to 
be that of love: as in so many other Limba stories a wife betrays her husband 
for the sake of her lover and brings disaster both to him and to mankind 
as a whole. This idea is by no means confined to the Limba, it is true. But 
the characteristic way in which it is expressed and appreciated and fits with 
Limba literary conventions is so very interesting that it seems dull to spend 
much time on the question of where the content first came from. The same 
could be said of other characteristically Limba points in the story: the use of 
dialogue; the expression of the action through a series of parallel episodes; 
the way in which, as so often in Limba stories, a character is at first too fearful 
to emerge from hiding; the stock description of human beings left by Kanu 
on earth without food and having to go and ask him for help; and, finally, 
the reference at the end to the present hard fate of the Limba, about which 
(in certain moods) they are much preoccupied— the way they have to labour 
long hours in the fields, season after season, in sun or in rain, to produce the 
rice which is their basic sustenance. All these points, bare as they may seem 
on the surface, are in fact of profound meaning to the Limba who hear and 
tell the story, and possess a whole range of connotations and allusions which 
would be unintelligible to one unacquainted with their culture. 

If this point can be made about a story based on a plot introduced as 
recently as only two years ago, how much more is this likely to be true of 
plots and motifs which have supposedly spread in the more remote past. 
Whatever interest the diffusionists' investigations of origins may have — and 
they are at least more verifiable than generalized evolutionary theories— it is 
clear that too great a preoccupation with this can lead, and indeed has led, to 

Recorded on tape from the Limba narrator (Karanke Dema) in February 1964, and 
published (in translation) in Finnegan 1967: 367-70. 


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318 Oral Literature in Africa 

a neglect of other equally interesting questions about the present literary and 
social significance of this genre of oral literature. 


Another aspect of the historical-geographical school of 'folklorists' has been 
the interest in classification. The original motive of this is obvious. Until 
the various elements in folktales are classified for easy reference, it will 
not be possible to collect and analyse comparatively the data necessary for 
tracing the life history of the various plots and motifs in question. Other 
influences from anthropology and sociology generally have increased this 
desire for classification, so that those now preoccupied with this are not all 
necessarily outright adherents of the Scandinavian school. 

This approach is excellent up to a point. Every subject needs some 
general agreement about terminology, not least the study of oral prose 
narratives. Clarification of the general-terms here can be most helpful, for 
instance the recent article by Bascom (1965fr) directed towards a definition 
of 'myth', 'legend', and 'folktale' as sub-types of the single category 'prose 
narrative.' Other classifications are more detailed, and include such 'types' 
as, say, 'dilemma tale', 'aetiological tale', and so on, many of these deriving 
ultimately from Stith Thompson's categorization. 9 Such typologies have 
helped to focus our attention on certain facets of prose narratives, to make 
comparisons and contrasts, and generally to become more aware of the 
potential differences in structure, content, or outlook in various kinds of 

However this can have its dangers. One point is that, in the case of the 
African material, it may be rather too early to produce helpful typologies of 
the more detailed kind. This at first sight seems ridiculous when so much 
has been published in the field of African prose narratives. In fact, however, 
much of this published material is of questionable quality. Often we are 
given summaries or synopses of the plot or structure, the texts themselves 
have frequently been written down by schoolboys or others with little 
skill in the actual artistry of the genre, and the final versions have often 
appeared in none too dependable translations with no comment at all on 
local classifications or attitudes. None of this suggests that classifications 
based on such data are likely to be very precise or helpful. Too often, indeed, 
the collections that appear to illustrate particular classifications have 

9 Though he himself was not trying to establish a typology. 


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12. Prose Narratives I. Problems and Theories 319 

themselves been recorded and presented by collectors who have assumed 
in advance that these categories have universal and 'natural' validity. 

One simple example of this is the general category of 'myth.' In most 
European cultures, it seems natural to assume a distinction between 'myths' 
(narratives, believed in some sense or other to be true, and concerned 
with the origins of things or the activities of deities) and 'folktales' or 
ordinary stories (fictional narratives, taken much less seriously). This 
rough classification also applies, more or less, to the narratives of certain 
non-European peoples. But— and this is the point— there are also societies 
in which this distinction between 'myth' and 'folktale' is not observed. The 
local people themselves may not recognize this classification but rather, as 
in the case of several African peoples, regard both as belonging to the same 
general genre of oral literature. In some of these cases, one may be able to 
detect some such general distinction, even though the people themselves 
are not conscious of it, even deny it. But in others, even that basis for 
categorization is lacking,' and it is not possible to find any local or empirical 
distinction between different groups of narratives. Yet European students 
often insist that there must be some such distinction, and impose their own 
categories by assuming without question that they can group together all 
those stories which have any superficial resemblance to what they have 
been brought up to regard as 'myth.' This sort of naive assumption is not 
made by the leading scholars in the field; indeed, writers like Thompson 
and Bascom have specifically warned against it. But many more popular 
adherents of this approach have been swayed by a combination of this kind 
of typology, and of their own cultural traditions, so that they do not stop to 
ask even whether there is any local basis at all for such a distinction from 
other narratives. There may be— but there just as well may not be. When 
facile assumptions about classification take the place of actual investigation 
(about, for instance, such questions as the attitudes of teller and audience 
to the narration, or the detailed subject-matter of the different 'types' of 
stories and how they compare), we have reached the point where easy 
classification should be replaced by more modest research into the facts. 

A further point about too much dependence on typologies here is that 
this under-emphasizes one of the most striking characteristics of much oral 
literature— its flexible and unfixed quality. This applies particularly in the 
case of prose. In the actual narration of stories — and the actual narration is 
what matters in oral literature — there is very often no fixed wording, and 
the narrator is free to bind together the various episodes, motifs, characters, 
and forms at his disposal into his own unique creation, suited to the 


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320 Oral Literature in Africa 

audience, the occasion, or the whim of the moment. The same point has 
been well made by Ruth Benedict in the context of American Indian (Zuni) 
stories when she speaks of the need for more intensive studies: 

The usual library-trained comparative student works with standard 
versions from each locality; in primitive cultures, usually one from a tribe. 
This version arbitrarily becomes 'the' tribal tale, and is minutely compared 
with equally arbitrary standard tales from other tribes. But in such a body of 
mythology as that of Zuni, many different variants coexist, and the different 
forms these variants take cannot be ascribed to different historical levels, or 
even in large measure to particular tribal contacts, but are different literary 
combinations of incidents in different plot sequences. The comparative 
student may well learn from intensive studies not to point an argument that 
would be invalidated if half a dozen quite different versions from the same 
tribe were placed on record (Benedict 1935 i: xiii). 

It is true that many collections of African stories give the impression of 
fixity just because they have been written down and printed. But in fact, 
in most African cases that have been fully examined, this variability 
of tales according to the teller and the occasion is one of their most 
apparent characteristics. 10 There is no one correct version or form. What 
on one occasion looks like, say, a 'dilemma tale' or a moralizing parable 
(to mention two well-known types) may on another, though otherwise 
similar in subject-matter, look like an aetiological explanation or just 
a humorous joke. Form, plot, and character may all equally, therefore, 
provide only a shifting and impermanent foundation for classification, 
and any attempt at making typologies on this basis can only result in 
misconceptions about the nature of the stories as actually told. 

Altogether, then, the current interest in classification can give a rather 
one-sided view of the significance of many prose narratives in Africa. 
This is particularly true when, as so often, they are based on what turns 
out to be only superficially analysed material. Largely owing to the past 
preoccupations of evolutionists, of linguists, 11 of educationalists, and of 
diffusionists, an amazingly large number of these collections have appeared 
without any rigorous commentary to elucidate their contemporary and 
local meaning, being presented as just bare 'texts', often no more than 
synopses of the outline plots. Detailed studies in depth of the literary and 

10 See e.g. Stappers 1962: 14-15 (Luba); Theal 1886: vii-viii (Xhosa); Finnegan 1967: 28-31 
(Limba); Evans-Pritchard 1967: 32ff (Azande); lunod ii 1913: 198ff (Thonga). 

11 Who have in the past been naturally more interested in the provision of texts for 
grammatical and syntactical analysis than in the variations of the spoken versions 


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12. Prose Narratives I. Problems and Theories 321 

social significance of the various stories in any one society are notably 
lacking. It is time more attention was focused on these aspects, and less on 
the comparative classification of stories, the tracing of the history of their 
plots, or the enumeration, however impressive in itself, of the quantities of 
texts that have so far been collected. 


The approaches discussed so far have mainly been those of recent American 
and Scandinavian scholarship, or the earlier British approach. The emphasis 
in more recent British work is very different. If the diffusionist and 
evolutionist schools concentrated on a few limited elements in their studies 
of African stories, the recent approach in Britain has been to ignore such 
stories altogether as an independent field of study. The 'structural-functional' 
approach of Radcliffe-Brown and others, which has until very recently 
dominated British social anthropology, is interested in local narratives only 
in so far as they can be seen to have a clear 'social function.' 

Various functions have been stated or assumed. Stories, for instance, are 
told to educate and socialize children, or, by drawing a moral, to warn people 
not to break the norms of the society. Other narratives— in this connection 
always persuasively called 'myths' — are 'charters' which serve to uphold 
the present structure of society in general, and the position of the rulers in 
particular. Others again are said to fulfil the function of providing a model 
through which people can verbalize the relationships and constitution of 
their society. Throughout, it is the utilitarian aspect of oral narratives that is 
brought to the fore, and little or nothing is said, even in passing, about verbal 
or artistic aspects. The prime concern is with the functioning of society, the 
narrations are assumed to be of no serious interest in themselves. 

We owe to this school an awareness of the social significance of certain 
stories. And we are also rightly reminded of a point overlooked by 
evolutionist and diffusionist writers: that the stories should be seen as part 
of their own social context and not just as survivals. But for someone also 
interested in the stories in themselves, particularly in their literary impact, 
such an approach in practice offers little further insight. 

Obviously a literary critic is interested in social function. But this, 
paradoxically, is not made much clearer for us by the strict functional 
interpretations adopted by many recent scholars. In such writings we are 
seldom told much about, say, how widely known certain 'myths' really are, 
when they are told, how far (if at all) they differ in tone, context, or telling 


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322 Oral Literature in Africa 

from the more 'fictional' tales, how far people themselves regard stories as 
educative, what opinions are held by the tellers on the relative importance 
of the utilitarian purpose, the attractiveness of subject-matter, and skill in 
delivery, etc. 

In fact the functionalists stress the utilitarian aspect so much but, when 
one comes down to it, with so little detailed evidence that one begins 
to wonder whether their confident assertions about a given narration's 
function have in fact much evidence behind them. Doubtless certain of 
these functions of educating, upholding, mirroring, etc., are fulfilled by 
African stories at times (just as they are, directly or indirectly, by many 
other types of literature); but what is needed now is further study of the 
detailed ways in which these functions in some cases are, and in others 
presumably are not, fulfilled (with an awareness that there may well be 
other aspects to stories besides the utilitarian one). 

On the one hand, then, this functional approach has not been very 
illuminating for many aspects of African stories.. It can also, on the other, be 
positively misleading. For one thing it implicitly insinuates the assumption 
that, to put it crudely, 'primitive peoples' (i.e. Africans) have no idea of 
the aesthetic, and therefore the only possible explanation of an apparent 
work of art, like a story, is that it must somehow be useful. And, of course, 
an assumption of this sort usually turns out to be self-verifying when the 
evidence is collected and analysed according to it. As will be clear from the 
whole tone of this book, I believe the evidence can be interpreted differently. 

Again, the functional approach focuses attention on the stable and 
stabilizing nature of both the stories and the society in which they occur. 
This emphasis on the status quo has been a common criticism of the 
'structure and function' school, and it is obviously particularly unsuited to 
an analysis of the living and creative art of the story-teller. 

Furthermore, the functionalist publications have tended to perpetuate 
the kind of misconception discussed earlier— the assumption that it is 
always possible to make a clear-cut distinction between 'myths' and other 
tales. These writers tend to assume that any story that looks at all as if it 
could be interpreted as a 'charter' for society can be labelled a 'myth'; the 
impression is thereby neatly given to the reader that this story is widely 
known, deeply believed, held different from other stories, and, perhaps, 
part of some systematic and coherent mythology. In fact, it is possible in 
a given case that none of this may be true at all; but just by using the little 
word 'myth' these connotations can be conveyed without being stated— or, 
therefore, questioned by either reader or writer. 


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12. Prose Narratives I. Problems and Theories 323 

Let me give an example from my own fieldwork to illustrate this point. 
When I first heard a Limba story about how in the old days Kanu (God) 
lived with mankind but then withdrew in impatience to the sky I at first 
automatically classed this in my mind as a 'myth.' It was easy to see its 
function (explaining and justifying the present state of things) and, like 
other 'myths', it was presumably well known and taken seriously. This was, 
it seemed, the Limba myth which could be treated as the basis of their 
religious philosophy just as similar 'myths' have been elsewhere. It was 
only after recording several dozen more Limba stories that I realized that 
this particular story was no different in style, outlook, or occasion of telling 
from the clearly 'fictional' and light-hearted narratives about, say, a man 
wooing a wife or a cat plotting to eat a group of rats. Far from being widely 
known and believed, I only, in fact, ever heard it told by one man, who 
was using it as a setting (like other stories) for his own idiosyncratic tricks 
of style and content; other people did not know it or treat it particularly 
seriously on the occasions they did hear it. The story still, of course, has 
its own significance. But it certainly has not the clear-cut separate status 
that I had wrongly assigned to it before I had a more thorough knowledge 
of Limba oral literature. One wonders how many of the narratives so 
easily referred to as 'myths' have in fact been misclassified owing to too 
superficial an assessment of the data. 12 

The same point could also be made about analyses using a similar 
approach, though without recourse to the favourite term 'myth.' Take, 
for instance, Beidelman's interpretations of Kaguru stories as Kaguru 
representations of social reality, a kind of sociological model of their 
society through the medium of a story 13 One tale describes how Rabbit (or 
Hare) tricks Hyena, and is interpreted, at first sight plausibly, as a Kaguru 
representation of matrilineal relationships. This may be so— but we are 
in fact given no solid evidence. As far as plot goes, much the same story 
occurs among other African peoples, so that for this interpretation to stand 
up we need to be given some discussion about, say, the indigenous and 
conscious interpretation of the story itself, the Kaguru attitude to this story 
(and stories in general), the contexts in which it is told, and perhaps some 
assessment of its relations to the general corpus of Kaguru oral literature. 
No attempt whatsoever is made to provide this information and it is fairly 

12 See Ch. 13 for some further discussion of the applicability of the term 'myth' to African 

13 Beidelman 1961; also a series of other articles on similar lines by the same author. 


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324 Oral Literature in Africa 

clear that Beidelman felt no need to consider these points. Because of the 
general attractiveness of the neat structural-functional framework (of 
which this is just one variety) the limitations and naivety of this and similar 
approaches have been overlooked. 

The predominance of this approach in British social anthropology is 
passing. Scholars are now realizing that, quite apart from the actual mistakes 
disseminated by this school, a concentration on just social functions and 
alleged contributions to social structure means treating only one limited 
aspect of oral narratives. Prose narratives (and oral literature generally) are 
once again becoming a field of interest in their own right. The influence of 
the older approach still lingers, however. For many years in Britain it was 
social anthropologists with this interest who appeared to hold the monopoly 
in the academic assessment of the role of oral narrative in Africa, and, as so 
often happens, their views are gaining popular acceptance just as they are 
becoming less influential in professional circles. It is partly to this influence 
that we owe the proliferation of collections of stories with the emphasis on 
bare synopsis or the moralizing element, and on references to, rather than 
full statements of, the 'myths' and 'legends' which stabilize society. 

To end this discussion of the various approaches of the past to the 
study of oral narratives, there is one general point that can be made. 
This is, that all these approaches seem to have in common an implicit 
assumption that oral narratives in Africa (and other non-literate cultures) 
can be treated in a fundamentally different way from the literature of 
more familiar peoples. The normal questions asked by literary critics in 
the case of written literature are brushed to one side in favour of pursuing 
historical reconstructions or assumptions about utility. No evidence 
is given that such narratives are fundamentally different from literary 
narratives elsewhere — this is just assumed; and the assumption made 
to look plausible because it is dealing with the literature of unfamiliar 
cultures. And yet, amazingly, the crucial way in which such narratives 
in fact really are different— their oral quality— is scarcely taken serious 
account of at all. 

In conclusion, it is clear that many of the earlier approaches to the study 
of oral narrative in Africa have in fact obscured many points of interest. 
In addition they have popularized various misconceptions about their 
nature or role. This has been done to such good effect that unproven 
or totally false speculations have been taken as truisms. There is still 
too general an acceptance of such questionable concepts as verbal fixity, 


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12. Prose Narratives I. Problems and Theories 325 

dominating significance of subject-matter, lack of native imagination 
or inventiveness, handing down narratives unchanged through the 
generations, or the basically pragmatic role of African stories. It is because 
of the wide prevalence of such misleading but often implicit theories that 
this rather destructive chapter has seemed a necessary prelude to any direct 
discussion of African narratives. 


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13. Prose Narratives 

II. Content and Form 

What is known: content and plot; main characters. Types of tales: animal tales; stories 
about people; 'myths'; 'legends' and historical narratives. What demands further 
study: occasions; role of narrators; purpose and function; literary conventions; 
performance; originality and authorship. Conclusion. 

Against this background of earlier theoretical speculations and 
misunderstandings, we can now survey the present position in the study 
of oral prose narration in Africa. What points have been established so far? 
And what aspects now need further investigation? 


First, the basic material. Of actual texts, synopses, and translations of 
African narratives we have a vast amount. Bascom, in his indispensable 
survey (Bascom 1964), lists forty-one peoples for whom collections of fifty 
or more tales with vernacular texts had been published by 1964. He adds 
a further list of forty-nine groups for which collections of at least fifty 
tales have appeared in translation (with fewer African texts), and further 
collections are appearing-all the time. 1 

1 The question of the total number of African stories is sometimes canvassed. Numbers 
like 5,000, 7,000, or (for unrecorded as well as recorded tales) even 200,000 have been 
mentioned (Herskovits 1960 (1946): 443-4). But this is hardly a fruitful question; it is not 
even in principle possible to count up items of oral art when it is the actual narration 
that matters and there are thus an infinite number of ways in which the 'same' plot can 
be presented and varied to become a 'new' and unique narration. Similarly, those who 
aim at the complete recording of all the oral literature of a given people— 'every little bit 
of this vernacular', as Mbiti for one hopes (Mbiti 1959: 253) — are setting themselves an 
impossible goal. 


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328 Oral Literature in Africa 

These collections are of very variable quality. It is often not made clear 
how they were recorded — on tape, from dictation, by the tellers themselves, 
or even written by hired schoolboys who are often unskilled in the local 
arts of story-telling and certainly not experienced in the near impossible 
task of transforming the oral art form into the medium of the written word. 
The resulting texts are often little more than abstracts or summaries of the 
plots — a perfectly adequate source when all one wants to consider is the 
origin of the plot or its relevance for social structure or education, but clearly 
quite inadequate for analysis in depth. When only translations are given, 
there are additional difficulties. The problems involved in any translation, 
let alone from a totally unfamiliar culture, are of course notorious— not 
that this has deterred some collectors from going through a double process 
of translation prior to the publication of their collections. 2 But quite apart 
from this there is the added point that when none of the original texts is 
provided it is not possible even for someone who knows the language to 
check the basic trustworthiness of the translation in the most literal terms. 
It is often quite impossible to assess how close these translations are to the 
original texts or whether, as perhaps happens rather often, they are only 
paraphrases or even touched-up and rewritten versions. What is really 
needed by now is less emphasis on collecting more and more texts and 
much more on rigorous and explicit standards in recording and translating. 

Using these many available texts, however, it has at least been possible 
for scholars to establish the very great similarities in African stories from 
all parts of the continent. 3 This includes similarity in plots, in motifs, and 
to some extent in characters. Only a few instances can be quoted, but these 
can be followed up in general works on African stories. 4 

As far as the outline of the plot goes, many of the resemblances are 
striking. Beyond this, however, there are many differences both of detail 
and of general treatment. Thus one of the most common plots is the tug of 
war into which a small animal induces two larger ones to enter in the belief 
that they are pulling against him. The small animal involved, however, is not 

2 e.g. Herskovits's Dahomean stories that were apparently first translated (during the 
actual flow of the story) from Fon into French by local interpreters, taken down on 
typewriters by the Herskovitses, and finally published in English (see Herskovits 1958: 6). 
How much of the indefinable literary qualities of the stories could survive such treatment 
can be left to the reader to imagine. 

3 And not just from Bantu Africa as sometimes suggested. 

4 e.g. Berry 1961; Lindblom 1928 (see 'comparative notes' in vols, i and ii); Herskovits 
1960 (1946) and Herskovits 1936; Wright 1960 (a short and specialized but useful article); 
Werner 1933 (Bantu). Also (unpublished) Mofokeng 1955; Klipple 1938; Clarke 1958. 


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13. Prose Narratives II. Content and Form 329 

everywhere the same. It may be — to mention only a few instances — a hare 
(e.g. Ila, Shona, Bemba, and many other peoples of Central Africa), a spider 
(Limba, Temne, and others in parts of West Africa), a mouse (Tetela in 
Congo), a tortoise, (Mpongwe and others in West Equatorial Africa and 
coastal areas of West Africa), or, in the related American version, Brer Rabbit. 
The two large animals who are tricked are most commonly an elephant and 
a hippopotamus, but a rhinoceros is also sometimes mentioned. Another 
common plot describes the aggressor out-tricked: an animal tries to kill his 
rescuer but is outdone by a third character who persuades him to re-enter 
the trap as a demonstration of the truth of the story, and leaves or kills 
him there. Among the various characters involved are: for the aggressor— a 
snake, leopard, or crocodile; for the rescuer (the potential victim) — a child, 
baboon, gazelle, water antelope, rat, or white man; for the wily character 
who foils the aggressor— a jackal, hare, pygmy antelope, or spider. 5 Similar 
points could be made with many other plots, by no means all of them to do 
with animals. There is the story also familiar from the Arabian Nights: three 
men co-operate to revive the girl they all love, each with magic objects 
to help them; in the various versions these include, for instance, a casket 
of dreams, a mirror, or a telescope to see her danger from afar; a magic 
arrow, a skin, or a hammock to travel instantly to her side; and a snuffbox, 
switch, or magic medicine to bring her back to life. 6 Again, there are the 
many tales about the origin of death that centre round the message sent by 
God endowing mankind with life, the right messenger being superseded 
or outstripped, and a second messenger bringing the wrong message — that 
of death. But the actual messengers named, the title of God, and even the 
exact framework take different forms in different areas. 7 Another common 
a build-up story in that the hero, sometimes a young boy, sometimes an 
animal, gradually acquires more and more valuable objects by, say, trading, 
exchange, or refusal to fight unless given his wish. Finally he reaches the 
pinnacle of any man's desires, in some versions followed by the anti-climax 
of losing the precious object and being back where he started. 8 

5 The actual instances cited are from the Hottentot, Kgatla, Yao, Tetela, Limba, and 
Ghana— i.e. from South, Central and West Africa respectively. For further instances see 
Klipple 1938: pp. 178ff. 

6 On the distribution of this plot see e.g. Werner 1960: 249; Berry 1961: 10; Klipple 1938: 

7 See among other sources Abrahamsson 1951, esp. Ch. 2; Klipple 1938: 755ff. 

8 Klipple 1938: 688ff. Examples and discussion of other variants of the accumulation or 
ritorndle story in Africa are given in Werner 1923; cf also Berry 1961: 9. 


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330 Oral Literature in Africa 

Rather than prolonging this list indefinitely, two versions of the 'same' 
plot may be quoted to illustrate how much they may in fact differ in tone 
and character even when the subject-matter seems very close. The plot offers 
explanations for the way birds of prey swoop down and carry off chickens 
from the mother hen. According to the story this is in return for a debt the 
hen owes from the old days. In both cases the version given is chosen for its 
brevity; many longer stories have been recorded from each society. 

First, a version from the Kikuyu of East Africa, recorded by Cagnolo 
who had spent many years in the area. 

The Vulture and the Hen 

Long ago the hen and the vulture used to live on excellent terms, helping 
each other at any time they needed a hand to procure their domestic 

One day the hen thought of borrowing a razor from the vulture, to shave 
the little ones. The shaving was already much overdue, but it couldn't be 
helped, because she had no razor, and was depending on the kindness of 
her neighbours. So the hen went to see the vulture and said: 'Dear vulture, 
I should like to borrow your razor; mine was lost months ago. My little ones 
are looking very ugly, and also very untidy, with their long unkempt hair 

The vulture listened to the hen with great concern and, after a short 
silence, said: 'Dear hen, I cannot refuse you this favour. To-morrow perhaps 
I might need your help as well, and we must help each other. However, you 
must remember one thing. You know what that razor means to me. I have 
no other income except the rent of that razor; that is to say, that razor is my 
field, whence I get my daily food. I do not intend to ask you any fee as I do 
with others; but please be careful to return it to me, as soon as you have 
finished your shaving.' 

'Thank you, brother vulture, I quite understand what you say, and I am 
very grateful to you. I'll bring it back very soon.' 

The hen was very glad of the favour, and as soon as she arrived home, 
made arrangements to be shaved by another woman. The following morning 
she also shaved her two little ones, so that the whole family was now shining 
like the moon. The work over, instead of immediately returning the razor to 
the owner, she put it in a leather purse, which was hanging in a corner of 
the hut. 

The days passed, and passed away like the water under the bridge, but 
the hen never thought again of returning the razor to the vulture. She forgot 
it completely. The vulture grew impatient, and deeply resented in his heart 
the unkindness, nay, the ingratitude of the hen. Pressed by necessity, he 
decided to go personally to the hen and demand his razor. 


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13. Prose Narratives II. Content and Form 331 

'Oh dear vulture/ said the hen with confusion and great regret, 'forgive 
me; I am so sorry for this my negligence. I really intended to return your 
razor very soon, but I put it in my leather bag, and forgot it completely. Let 
me go and take it; you will have it in half a minute.' 

'Yes, I know you are a forgetful creature; but look at the damage you have 
caused me. You have deprived me of my sustenance for many days. Mind 
you, if you have lost it, you will pay for it and very dearly', said the vulture. 
The hen rushed into the hut to fetch the razor. She plunged her hand into 
the leather bag, but alas! it was empty; there was no razor in it. She was very 
shocked at the unpleasant discovery. She started searching on the floor to 
see if by chance it had dropped from the bag, but there was no finding it. She 
looked under the children's bed, near the fire stones, in the store; but there 
was no sign of it. Tired and defeated, she came out and, imploring, said: 
'O dear friend and master, I can't find it. Have mercy on me! I will search 
better; I am ready to demolish my hut altogether, and search diligently until 
I find it and return it to you.' 

'I told you to be very careful, and I repeat it again: I want my razor back! 
But mind, I want the very one I gave you, and no substitute.' 

The poor hen spent all the day searching and searching, but nothing 
came to light. She demolished her hut, and started searching in the roof-grass, 
among the rabble of the walls, between the poles, in the ashes, and even in 
the rubbish pit; but nothing was found. 

The following day the vulture came to see the results of the searching. 
He found the hen still scratching the ground among a heap of dry grass and 
ox dung; but no razor was yet discovered. 

'I am very sorry, dear hen,' said the vulture, 'but now I cannot wait 
any longer without compensation for my razor. For to-day you must give 
me a chicken. To-morrow I will return and see what has happened in the 

So the vulture flew away with a chicken gripped within his talons 
under its breast. The following day he returned to the hen. She was still 
scratching the ground; but she could not see any razor. Another chicken 
went with the vulture. And the same happened in the following days until 
to-day. That is the reason why the hen is always scratching the ground, 
and the vulture swooping on chickens even in our days. The hen is still 
searching for the razor, and the vulture compensating himself for its loss 

(Cagnolo 1953: 129-31). 

The second instance is one of the stories I recorded among the Limba of 
Sierra Leone. 9 

9 Recorded on tape from the public telling of the story in February 1961 and given here 
in a fairly close translation. The original text is given in R. Finnegan, The Limba of Sierra 
Leone, D.Phil, thesis, University of Oxford, 1963, iii: 488-9. 


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332 Oral Literature in Africa 

The Finch, the Eagle, and the Hen 

The finch, a small bird, once borrowed money from the eagle's grandfather. 
He borrowed that money. 

Now the eagle — (he died) leaving his children alone. But he left a 
message with them: 'Your grandfather had money borrowed from him by 
the father of the finch.' 

Since he (i.e. his family) had lent the money, the (young) eagle spent a 
long time looking for the finch. He looked and looked; but he could not find 

One day he went and sat down where they pound the rice. He was sitting 
there. When he saw the hen standing there, eating the rice, he asked her: 

'Oh, hen.' 


'What are you doing here?' 

'I am getting my food'. 

'Do you know whereabouts the finch is? He's the one I'm looking for. He 
made use of my father's property. I want him to return it . . . , 10 Do you think 
I will be able to find the finch?' 

'Yes, you can find him.' 

'Well, how can I find him?' 

'When people get up to go and pound the rice, if you go there and you 
hide you will find the finch there.' 11 

The eagle got there. He went and hid. The finch alighted and began to 
pick at the ground, searching for his food. The eagle swooped down. 

'Ah! you! What a long time I have spent looking for you. Now here you 
are today. Today you will have to give me back the property your family 

'What?' asked the finch. 'Eagle?' 


'Who told you where I was?' 

'The hen.' 

'It was the hen that told you?' 


'Oh! dear!' (said the finch) 'We have both been having trouble then. I— ha! 
I have been looking for the hen here but could not find her. And all the time 
you have been looking for me and could not find me! Since the hen was the 
reason you found me, that's why I am going to give her to you now.' 

10 The speaker, apparently by mistake, interpolated a few sentences about the hen which 
should clearly have come later and are omitted. This particular narrator was by no 
means distinguished as a story-teller. 

1 1 The finch, like the hen earlier, goes to pick among the grain. 


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13. Prose Narratives II. Content and Form 333 

(The eagle did not believe the finch.) 12 

'Haven't you seen my house (then)?' 

He (still) did not believe. 

'Eagle' (said the finch). 


'Come on.' 

They went. They went and stood near the wall (where the finch lived). 

'Here is where you can tell that my grandfathers owned her (the hen) as a 
slave. As for the hen-family— just look here at where my children sleep. You 
can't find any leaves there, can you, only feathers.' 13 

When they got there the eagle went and looked. He saw the hen's feathers. 
He turned them over — and over — and over. He could only see feathers. 

'Yes, finch. You spoke the truth. Well then let there be no quarrel between 
us (two).' 

T will give you the hen-family my slaves.' 

That is why hens are carried off by eagles. That is the story. It is finished. 14 

The difference between the two stories is more than merely a matter of 
translator's style. Both tales give an aetiological explanation of the present 
misfortunes of chickens and trace this back to a debt (or alleged debt) by the 
hen; but the framework, the detailed course of the plot, even the implied 
evaluations of the characters are very different. The subject-matter and 
literary structure of each story can only be fully appreciated (as distinct 
from appearing as a catalogue item) with a detailed knowledge of the social 
and literary experience from which it springs. Indeed, the treatment and 
impact of stories based on the 'same' plot or motif can vary considerably, 
even in the same society, if told by a different individual or even, in some 
cases, by the same individual on different occasions. 15 All this, too, is not 
to mention the aspect of actual performance which, it is worth repeating, 
cannot come across at all in a written version, but may appear on the actual 
occasion of telling as the most noticeable distinguishing characteristic of 
the story. 

Even if the great similarity in plots gives a slightly misleading impression 
of the degree of cultural uniformity actually involved, this information 

12 This was clear in the actual narration, though not in the words. 

13 The finch 'proves' that the hen is his property hy showing that his nest is lined with hen's 
feathers for his children to sleep on. 

14 The same general framework is used in several other Limba stories, e.g. two included in 
Finnegan 1967: 334-6. 

15 See e.g. Finnegan 1967: 93ff. and 347ff, for instances of the effects of different narrators 
and occasions among the Limba; and Evans-Pritchard 1964 for versions of the 'same' 
story among the Azande. 


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334 Oral Literature in Africa 

does throw some light of a limited kind on the sorts of plots that have wide 
popularity and the continually recurring situations that are the subjects of 
so many African stories throughout the continent. 16 

Characters of African stories also recur throughout the continent. Most 
familiar of all are the animals, particularly the wily hare, tortoise, spider, 
and their larger dupes. But there are also many stories about people, 
ordinary and extraordinary, some about legendary heroes or ancestors, and 
a few which recount the actions of various supernatural beings. They are 
also occasionally woven round other personified objects like, say, the parts 
of the body, vegetables, minerals, the heavenly bodies, or abstractions like 
hunger, death, or truth. These various characters do not usually appear 
in strictly separate cycles, but in many cases are depicted as interacting 
among themselves: thus a story mainly about animals may introduce a 
human being or even God as one of the figures, or a human hero can be 
shown as succeeding through his magical powers in speaking with and 
enrolling the help of various animals. The same general plots may be 
centred round different types of characters in different areas, or even on 
different occasions in the same society. In Lamba stories, to cite just one 
instance, 'the exploits of the little-hare and of a curious little human being, 
Kantanga . . . are very much the same' (Doke 1934: 358). In other cases it 
may be rather ambiguous whether the central figure is really animal or 
really human, and it may appear in different guises on different occasions. 
The Kikuyu Wakahare, for instance, appears sometimes as a squirrel, 
sometimes as a human, the Zande trickster is called 'spider' but envisaged 
as a man, while the famous Zulu equivalent of Tom Thumb and Jack the 
Giant Killer rolled into one, uHlakanyana, is usually a tiny clever boy, but in 
other contexts appears as a weasel. 17 . 

In spite of such overlap between the appearance of these various characters, 
it is convenient to discuss the various types of stories by differentiating 
them roughly in terms of their main characters. We will thus discuss in turn 
stories based mainly on animal characters, on human characters, and finally 
on historical and on supernatural beings of one kind or another ('myths'). 
That it is not possible to regard these general types as clear-cut categories 
will be clear both from the way the characters overlap and from the general 

16 For further references see p. 336 n. 3. On plots in Bantu stories, see especially Werner 

17 Cagnolo 1952-53; Evans-Pritchard 1967: 23 (and cf. Kronenberg 1960: 237, on characters 
in Nilotic tales); Krige 1936: 346 (cf. Jacottet 1908: xxvii). 


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13. Prose Narratives II. Content and Form 335 

remarks in the previous chapter on the difficulties of producing clear 
typologies in the case of such flexible and variable material. This indeed is 
why the material has been presented in a single chapter here rather than 
as separate chapters under the popularly acceptable headings of 'animal 
stories', 'myths', 'legends', etc. However, in view of the nature of the sources 
available and for mere convenience of discussion, we can speak of animal 
tales, tales about people, and so on, at the same time insisting that in view 
of the overlapping and impermanence of any given story, these must not be 
regarded as categories in any generally valid typology of African narratives. 


When we consider the many animal tales that have been collected from 
Africa, the main factor that has struck most observers is the great emphasis 
on animal tricksters— small, wily, and tricky animals who cheat and outdo 
the larger and more powerful beasts. They trick them in a pretended tug 
of war, cheat them in a race, deceive them into killing themselves or their 
own relations, gobble up their opponents' food in pretended innocence, 
divert the punishment for their own misdeeds on to innocent parties, and 
perform a host of other ingenious tricks. 

The actual author of these exploits varies in different areas. Among 
most of the Bantu peoples it is the little hare, an animal that also occurs 
as a main character in some of the savannah areas of West Africa; as 'Brer 
Rabbit' he also appears in similar stories in the New World. 18 The spider 19 is 
the main character in most of the forest regions of West Africa, particularly 
in the westerly parts including Ghana, Ivory Coast, and Sierra Leone; he 
also comes into Hausa stories to the north, Luo and Zande tales in Central 
Africa, and corresponds to Annan cy' in the West Indies, a name that directly 
recalls the Ghanaian Ananse, the Akan spider. The tortoise predominates in 
the easterly regions of the west coast, in an area extending at least from 
the Yoruba of Nigeria across to the Fang and others of West Equatorial 
Africa. The tortoise also comes into other areas in a lesser way; among the 
Ila of Zambia, to give one example, the main cycle of tales are about Sulwe, 
the hare, but there are also a number about Fulwe, the tortoise. There are 
also a few other favourite trickster characters who occur often enough in 

18 On the hare, see Frobenius 1923: 131. 

19 On the distribution of spider stories see, among other accounts, V. Maes, 'De Spin', 
Aequatoria 13, 1950. 


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336 Oral Literature in Africa 

stories but without any clear-cut geographical domain: the little antelope, 
often portrayed as innocently ingenious; the squirrel (e.g. in many Limba, 
Kikuyu, and Luba stories); the wren (in Luba tales); and a few with more 
purely local reference: the small weasel who appears among the Zulu and 
Xhosa, most often apparently personified as a small boy; and the jackal 
trickster in Hottentot animal stories, as well as in some Zulu, Xhosa, and 
Sotho tales. 20 

Though all these trickster figures tend to get up to the same kinds of 
tricks in story after story, they cannot altogether be assimilated to each other. 
The spider, for instance, though often wily, is also, in some areas at least, 
depicted as stupid, gluttonous, boastful, and ineffective, not infrequently 
outdone by his own wife. There are also instances of the same image being 
applied to the tortoise. 21 On the other hand, the sly effectiveness of the hare 
is what we notice in most Bantu tales. All these tricksters, however, are 
adaptable. They are able to turn any situation, old or new, to their advantage. 
The tortoise now aspires to white collar status in Southern Nigeria and 
attends adult education classes, (Berry 1961: 14) while the spider Ananse 
referees football matches among the Ashanti in Ghana. (Nketia 1958d: 21) 

Besides the leading animal figures, there are also many others who come 
into the tales in secondary roles. Some of the stock characters associated 
with them are common to many areas: the lion, strong and powerful but 
not particularly bright; the elephant, heavy, ponderous, and rather slow; 
the hyena, the type of brute force and stupidity, constantly duped by the 
little quick animals; the leopard, untrustworthy and vicious, often tricked 
in spite of his cunning; the little antelope, harmless and often clever; the 
larger deer, stupid and slow — and so on. (Not all these occur in all regions 
or all stories in exactly the same way.) Surprisingly, other animals— the 
zebra, buck, or crocodile — seldom occur, or, if they do, tend to come in 
just as animals and not as the personified characters presented by those 
already mentioned. 22 One final and rather different animal character that 

20 On the jackal, see Bleek 1864, part I; Jacottet 1908, p. xxvii. The jackal may also occur in 
stories in some northerly areas of Africa, but the older assumptions, which saw this as 
part of a wider scheme in which the jackal was the typical trickster among the so-called 

'Hamites' (supposed to cover Hottentots as well as certain North Africans), are no longer 
tenable, and the significance of the jackal in the north may have been exaggerated to fit 
the theory. 

21 e.g. among the Kalahari. See the analysis of this in Horton 1967. 

22 This is pointed out by W. James in her unpublished B.Litt. thesis, Animal Representations 
and their Social Significance, with Special Reference to Reptiles and Carnivores among Peoples of 
Eastern Africa, Oxford, 1964: 215. 


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13. Prose Narratives II. Content and Form 337 

must be mentioned is the mantis in Bushman tales. He is the favourite 
hero in Bushman narratives, and though he shares some of the qualities 
sometimes attributed to tricksters (powerful and foolish, mischievous and 
kind), his supernatural associations and the unusual type of action in these 
stories set him rather apart from leading animal characters in narratives 
elsewhere in Africa. 

With few exceptions, these animals are portrayed as thinking and acting 
like human beings, in a human setting. This is sometimes brought out by 
the terminology, like the personal prefix used in Sotho to turn the ordinary 
form of, say, lion (tow) into a personal form (motau — Mr. Lion) (Smith and 
Dale ii, 1920: 339), or the class of honorific plural in Lamba which makes 
an ordinary animal term into a personal name — 'Mr. Blue-Snake' (Doke 
1939: 95). In other cases no grammatical change is or needs to be made. The 
animals act like human characters, experiencing human emotions. And yet 
the fact that they are also animals is not altogether lost sight of. This can be 
exploited either through grammatical forms, like the alternation in Zande 
stories between animal and personal pronouns, (Evans-Pritchard 1967: 26) 
or through allusions to the animal's characteristic cry, appearance, or 
behaviour to add to the wit or incongruity of the presentation. In a Limba 
tale, for instance, a spider is shown taking off his cap, gown, and trousers 
in a vain attempt to placate his magic pot; in the story he is unquestionably 
like a man— albeit an absurdly foolish man— with a house, wife, and 
human garb, but the fact that he is, nevertheless, a spider struggling with 
all these clothes adds just the extra understated touch in the telling which 
makes the whole story very funny. 

Many of these stories are light-hearted, even satirical, and centre round 
the tricks and competitions of the hare, spider, or their friends, set in a wide 
range of adaptable and adapting situations. But there are also more serious 
themes. One common form is a story ending up with a kind of moral, 
sometimes in the form of a well-known proverb. The listeners are told that 
they can learn a lesson from the experiences of the animals in the tale— that, 
say, one should not be rude to one's mother-in-law, that men's words are 
more weighty than women's, that strangers should be treated well, that it 
is ill-advised to oppress the weak, or even that determination sometimes 
triumphs over virtue. In some places too, Christian morals are specifically 
introduced, e.g. among the Luba. (Stappers 1962: 14) In such narrations 
the moral element sometimes seems to form the core of the story, so that 
we could appropriately term it a parable rather than a straightforward 
story. But in other cases, sometimes even those from the same area or teller, 


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338 Oral Literature in Africa 

the moral seems no more than a kind of afterthought, appended to give the 
narration a neat ending. 

Another very common framework is that in which an explanation is given 
for some present behaviour seen in the world, or a known characteristic of 
some animal or bird. For example, to cite a few titles at random from one 
society (Ila of Zambia), we have stones about how the Ringdove came by 
its ring, how Ringdove got her name, how Squirrel robbed Coney of his tail, 
how Squirrel and Jackal became distinct, how Skunk came to be a helper of 
man, why Duiker has a fine coat and particoloured tail, why Zebra has no 
horns, why there are cracks in Tortoise's shell— and so on (Smith and Dale 
ii, 1920: Ch. 28). These aetiological themes are not just confined to animal 
stories but can occur in all types of African tales. However, they seem 
to be a particularly popular and fertile theme when the main characters 
are animals, and some striking animal characteristic, well known to the 
listeners from their own observation, can be wittily 'explained' in the story. 
Not all the aetiological tales are equally humorous and light-hearted. A few 
explain more serious matters: in these cases the animals are often depicted 
as interacting with humans or with God as well as with other animals; they 
explain, for instance, the origin of murder, of death, or of chiefship. 

An explanatory ending, in fact, can apparently be tacked on to almost any 
plot as a pleasing framework and conclusion fitting in with current literary 
conventions — once again, we see that animal trickster stories, aetiological 
tales, or even 'myths' are not mutually exclusive types but merely favourite 
themes which may or may not be combined in any one story. An example 
of the nonessential nature of the aetiological conclusion can be seen from 
the following Kikuyu tale where the explanation at the end sounds very 
much like an afterthought. 

The Hyena, Wakahare, and the Crow 

One day a Hyena went together with Wakahare to collect honey in the forest, 
where men used to hang their beehives from the trees. Wakahare climbed 
the tree, extracted big lumps of combs full of honey from a beehive, and 
when he was satiated, said to the Hyena: 'Open your mouth and I will drop 
some honey into it.' The Hyena did so and swallowed the honey with great 
pleasure several times, until she was also satisfied. Then Wakahare left the 
tree and returned to the ground. He asked the Hyena: 'How did you enjoy 
the honey?' 

'Very, very much, what bliss, my dear friend.' 


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13. Prose Narratives II. Content and Form 339 

'But remember,' said Wakahare, 'this is a kind of sweetness that must not 
be evacuated from your body.' 

'Yes, I think it must be so; but how can one prevent it from going out?' 

'I'll tell you what to do. I will stitch your orifice together with your tail 
and you may be sure that no sweetness will come out.' 

'Good, my friend, do it for me, please.' Wakahare fetched a few sharp 
thorns and stitched the orifice with the tail of the Hyena and went off. After 
some time the Hyena felt a terrible urge to evacuate. She looked around for 
help, but nobody was to be found. At last a Jackal happened to pass thereat. 
'Oh, dear friend Jackal,' said the Hyena, 'come please, and help me.' 

'What can I do for you, dear friend?' 

'Please, release a little bit the stitches which are at the neck of my tail. 
I cannot bear it any longer.' 

'Sorry my friend, I am unable to do that. I know you have diarrhoea 
habitually, and don't want to be splashed with a discharge of that kind.' And 
so saying, he went on. After some time a Serval arrived on his way to the 
forest. The Hyena beseeched him for help. 

'Sorry Mrs. Hyena, you are very prone to discharge violently/ said the 
Serval, I don't want to be buried under your excrements.' He too went his 
way without looking back. Later on a Hare passed by. The Hyena asked 
again for help, but to no avail. 

'I am very sorry' the Hare said, 'don't you see how clean I am? I am 
going to a feast. I don't want to soil my dress and get untidy for your dirty 
business.' He too went his way leaving the Hyena groaning and tossing on 
the ground on account of the pain she was suffering. At last, a Crow perched 
on a tree nearby. Looking down at the Hyena lying still on the grass, he 
thought she was dead, and began to foretaste a good meal: but as he was 
planning what to do next, the Hyena opened her eyes and seeing the Crow 
on the tree, said: 'Oh dear Crow, dear friend of mine, help! help! please.' The 
Crow left the tree and approached the Hyena. 'What is the matter with you?' 
he asked. 

'Oh please, release a bit the stitches in my tail. I am dying of the urge of 
my body and I cannot evacuate.' 

'You say dying; dying?' 

'Yes, help me please.' 
'But you see, I am only a bird with no paws. How can I help you with 
that business?' 

'Oh dear, try as much as you can and you will succeed.' 

T doubt very much, and besides that I am very hungry. I have no strength 
to do any work.' 

'O nonsense! My belly is full of meat. You will eat to-day, to-morrow, 
and the day after to-morrow and be satiated.' On hearing that, the Crow set 
himself to think and after a little while decided to see what he could do. With 
his strong bill he succeeded in extracting the first thorn, and truly, two small 


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340 Oral Literature in Africa 

pieces of meat fell on the ground. The bird devoured them very greedily, 
and encouraged by the success, began to tackle the job seriously. After great 
effort he succeeded in extracting the second thorn, but alas! a burst of white 
excrement gushed forth with such vehemence, that the poor Crow was cast 
back ten feet and was buried head and all under a heap of very unpleasant 
matter. The shock was so great, that he remained buried for two days, until 
a great shower of rain washed the ground, freeing the Crow of the burden. 
He remained a full day basking in the sun and regaining strength. He was 
so weak that he could not fly. The Crow was washed by the heavy rain, but 
his neck remained white. That is the reason why crows to-day have a white 
collar in their plumage. The Crow very much resented the alteration of his 
plumage and decided in his heart to take revenge. 

One day he heard that the hyenas had arranged for a great dance in a 
thicket he knew very well. He cleaned himself with great care in the morning 
dew, put on a beautiful string made of scented roots and proceeded to the 
meeting place. On his arrival he was greeted by the hyenas and several of 
them asked him to give them some of those little pieces of meat he wore 
around his body. They took his ornamental beads to be meat. He refused to 
give any of the beads away, but rising on his feet with an air of dignity, he said: 
'My dear friends, forgive me this time, I cannot give away this kind of meat, 
which is specially reserved for our kinship, but I promise you a great quantity 
of good meat and fat if you follow me to the place I am going to show you.' 

'Where is it?' they asked very anxiously. 

'You see, we birds fly in the air and our deposits of food are not on earth, 
but on high for safety's sake. Look up at the sky and see how many white 
heaps of fat we usually store there. That's where you will find meat and fat 
in great quantity' The hyenas gazed up to the sky and asked: 'But how can 
we get there?' 

'Will show you. You can reach there very easily. Now, let us make an 
appointment. The day after to-morrow we will meet here again. Tell your 
people, old and young, men and women to come here with baskets and bags; 
there will be meat and fat for all.' On the day appointed the hyenas came in 
great numbers. I think the whole population was there. The Crow arrived 
in due time. He started by congratulating the crowd on their punctuality, 
and with great poise said: 'My dear friends, listen now how we are going to 
perform the journey to the place of meat and plenty. You must grapple one 
another by the tail, so as to form a long chain. The first of the chain will hold 
fast to my tail.' 

There was a general bustle among the hyenas, but after a few moments 
all were in order. At a given sign, the Crow began to fly, lifting the hyenas 
one by one till they looked like a long black chain waving in the air. After 
some time he asked: 'Is there anybody still touching ground?' The hyenas 
answered: 'No, we are all in the air.' He flew and flew up into the sky for a 
long time and asked again: 'What do you see on earth? Do you see the trees, 
the huts, the rivers?' 


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13. Prose Narratives II. Content and Form 341 

'We see nothing but darkness', they answered. He flew again for another 
while and then said to the hyenas nearby: 'Now, release for a while, that 
I may readjust my ornaments.' 

'But dear friend, how can we do it? We will surely fall down and die.' 

'I can't help it. If you don't release me, I will let go my tail, I am sure the 
feathers will grow again.' 

'Oh dear friend, don't, please don't for your mother's sake, we would die, 
all of us.' The Crow would not listen at all. He thought the time had come 
for his revenge. With a sharp jerk he turned to the right. The feathers of 
his tail tore out, and with them the long chain of hyenas. They fell heavily 
on the ground and died. One of them escaped with a broken leg. She was 
pregnant and so saved the kinship from total destruction. That is the reason 
why hyenas these days limp when they walk (Cagnolo 1952: 128-9). 23 

One of the obvious points in these stories is just the sheer entertainment 
afforded by the description of the amusing antics of various animals, and 
they are often told to audiences of children. The fact that most of the animals 
portrayed are well known to the audience — their appearance, their behaviour, 
their calls, so often amusingly imitated by the narrator— adds definite wit 
and significance that is lost when rendered for readers unfamiliar with this 
background. The gentle, shy demeanour of the gazelle, the ponderous tread 
of an elephant, the chameleon's protuberant eyes, or the spider's long-legged 
steps are all effectively conveyed and provide a vivid and often humorous 
picture for those present. It is true that the imagery associated with the animal 
figures in tales hardly matches that implied in other contexts (praise songs 
for instance, as pointed out in James 1964: 216). But on a straightforward and 
humorous level the animals that appear in the stories can be appreciated and 
enjoyed for their amusing antics or their vivid portrayal by the narrator. 

But there is more to be said than this. On another level, what is often 
involved in the animal stories is a comment, even a satire, on human society and 
behaviour. In a sense, when the narrators speak of the actions and characters 
of animals they are also representing human faults and virtues, somewhat 
removed and detached from reality through being presented in the guise of 
animals, but nevertheless with an indirect relation to observed human action. 
As Smith writes of the Ha, in words that can be applied far more widely: 

In sketching these animals, not Sulwe and Fulwe [Hare and Tortoise] 
only, but all the animals in these tales, the Ba-ila are sketching themselves. 

23 Even clearer instances of the sometimes peripheral nature of aetiological conclusions 
is provided by Limba stories where, even in the 'same' plot, an explanation sometimes 
appears, sometimes not. 


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342 Oral Literature in Africa 

The virtues they esteem, the vices they condemn, the follies they ridicule — all 
are here in the animals. It is a picture of Ba-ila drawn by Ba-ila, albeit 
unconsciously. . . (Smith and Dale ii, 1920: 341) 

There is no need to try to explain the occurrence of animal stories by invoking 
outdated theories about totemism or the unfounded notion that 'primitive 
man' could somehow not clearly distinguish between himself and animals. 
Nor need we refer to literalistic interpretations of the stories, and assume 
that in each case they present clear-cut moral messages, like the protest of 
weakness against strength, or a direct one-to-one reflection of human or 
local society, or specific references to definite individuals— though there are 
occasional instances of the last category 24 Rather we can see these animal 
stories as a medium through which, in a subtle and complex way, the social 
and literary experience of narrators and listeners can be presented. The 
foibles and weaknesses, virtues and strengths, ridiculous and appealing 
qualities known to all those present are touched on, indirectly, in the telling 
of stories and are what make them meaningful and effective in the actual 
narration. In contexts in which literary expression is neither veiled by being 
expressed through the written word nor (usually) voiced by narrators 
removed from the close-knit village group, comment on human and social 
affairs can be expressed less rawly, less directly by being enmasked in 
animal characters. 

Some of the plots and explanations in the stories may appear puerile 
and naive — and so no doubt they are when stripped of the social 
understanding and dramatic narration that give them meaning. But 
the background to, say, some little story about a competition between 
two animals for chiefship, or a race between two birds to the colonial 
secretariat for the prize of local government office, renders it meaningful 
to an audience fully aware of the lengths to which political rivalry and 
ambition can lead men. If we cannot say that such events are represented 
directly in the stories, we can at least see how the tales strike a responsive 
chord in their audience. In a way common to many forms of literature, 
but doubly removed from reality in being set among animals, the animal 
tales reflect, mould, and interpret the social and literary experience of 
which they form part. 

There is a further point about some of the animal stories. This is the 

24 e.g. in Acholi and Lango tales where the story is ostensibly about, say, the hare, or 
'a certain man', and set in the past, but is in fact designed to ridicule someone who is 
present (Okot 1963: 394-5). 


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13. Prose Narratives II. Content and Form 343 

effective use that can be made of the image of the trickster (usually but not 
invariably an animal). This figure can be adapted to express the idea of 
opposition to the normal world or of the distortion of accepted human and 
social values. This applies particularly when the trickster figure is made 
not only wily but also in some way inordinate and outrageous — gluttonous, 
uninhibited, stupid, unscrupulous, constantly overreaching himself. Here, 
the trickster is being presented as a kind of mirror-image of respectable 
human society, reflecting the opposite of the normally approved or 
expected character and behaviour. 25 Again, the trickster can be used to 
represent traits or personalities which people both recognize and fear. This 
aspect has been particularly well described for Ikaki, the tortoise trickster 
figure among the Kalahari. He appears in both masquerade and story as 

the amoral, psychopathic confidence trickster — the type who accepts society 
only in order to prey upon it . . . the intelligent plausible psychopath, that 
universal threat to the fabric of the community. (Horton 1967: 237) 

More than this. Not only does the trickster figure stand for what is feared, 
his representation in literature also helps to deal with these fears. In the 
first place, he is represented in animal guise which allows narrator and 
listener to stand back, as it were, and contemplate the type in tranquillity. 
Further, by portraying him in stories, people can show the trickster as 
himself outwitted and overreached, often enough by his own wife. Again, 
by exaggerating and caricaturing him to the point of absurdity, they in a 
sense 'tame' him. In these various ways 

the disturbing real-life experience of plausible psychopaths is controlled, 
confined, and cut down to size. People laugh from out of their depths at 
the ravening forest beast, because for once they have got him behind bars. 
(Horton 1967: 239) 

These animal tales have been the most popular and well-known type of 
African narrative among many European collectors and readers. The stories 
are often amusing in themselves, they fitted in with certain preconceptions 
about, say, totemism or the supposed 'childlike mentality' of Africans, and 
they provided pleasing parallels to the Uncle Remus stories of America 
which they had ultimately fathered. 26 The result is that many more animal 
stories have been published than those about other characters, and the 

25 A point brought out in Evans-Pritchard's account of the Zande trickster (Evans-Pritchard 
1967: 28-30). 

26 Or so it is usually assumed; it is not in fact certain that all the Uncle Remus tales came 
directly from Africa via the slaves. 


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344 Oral Literature in Africa 

impression has often been given that animal tales form the main type of 
prose narrative in Africa or even of oral literature altogether. This in fact 
is far from being the case. The proportion of animal stories seems to have 
been much exaggerated, and in some areas at least stories mainly about 
people or supernatural beings seem to be preferred or to be more elaborate, 
lengthy, or serious. It is not easy to work out the numerical and qualitative 
relationship between animal and other stories in different areas. One or two 
suggestions have been made along these lines— postulating, for example, 
that animal tales are the most popular form in Central and East Africa, but 
not at all conspicuous in parts of South Africa. 27 But the evidence is hard 
to assess. Quite apart from the overlapping between animal and other tales, 
one does not usually know what principles of selection have been adopted 
in any given collection of tales: even commentators working in the same 
areas at the same date may differ widely about the relative significance of 
different types of tales. Perhaps all that can be concluded for the moment at 
least is that, for all their popularity in Europe, animal tales are not the only 
or even the most important type of African oral narratives. 

Stories about people are, in some areas at least, probably the most 
important group of narratives. These stories are of many kinds. Some are 
concerned with marvellous events and personages, some exhibit marked 
Arabic influence (particularly in the long-established Islamic areas), some 
deal with everyday events in village life, some with a combination of all 
these. Like animal stories, some stories contain an aetiological aspect or a 
moralizing conclusion, others centre round a series of tricks or a competition. 
There is a definite overlapping in subject and structure, both between various 
categories of stories about people and, as already remarked, between all 
these stories and animal tales as a whole. 

Less need be said about narratives set in the human world than those about 
animals. This is not because they are less important, but because, being less well 
known, they have been less theorized over and confused by Western scholars. 
It is obvious to most readers that these narratives can be treated as a form of 
literature comparable to the more familiar types of written fiction rather than 
analysed as some strange product of a totemistic or as yet childish mentality. 
After some brief comments on the range of these stories, the narratives can be 
left to speak for themselves as self-evidently a form of literature. 

Many of these stories are about everyday events and characters. They 

27 See eg. Jacottet's remarks on this (1908: xxvi). The once mooted idea (of Bleek's) that 
animal tales did not occur among the Bantu is now recognized to be untenable. 


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13. Prose Narratives II. Content and Form 345 

concern such well-known problems as the relations of two co-wives and 
how these affect their children or their husband; wooing a wife; jealousy 
between two equals or between chief and subject; the extremes of friendship 
and affection shown by two companions; or a series of clever tricks by 
some outrageous but in essence recognizably human character. But even 
more often, it seems, the story is set back a little further from reality by 
the introduction of some marvellous element in setting, event, or character. 
The man who goes to woo a woman, for instance, may have to undergo a 
series of far-fetched or even magical tests before he can win her— perhaps 
sowing and harvesting some crop in a single day, or guessing his beloved's 
closely guarded and amazing secret, or avoiding death only through the 
magical help of animals or spirits. Similarly the cunning of the central 
character may rest on enchanted powers and lead the listener into some 
far-away world of fantasy. The imagination of both teller and audience can 
rove freely and the exploits of the hero become the more romantic and 
exciting for being enacted against this imaginary background. 

Other stories could be called thrillers. The hero struggles against ogres 
and monsters who are trying to devour him. These fearsome ogres are 
stock characters in many stories in Bantu Africa. There are the one-legged, 
two-mouthed cannibalistic ogres of East African tales, for instance, the 
Di-kishi cannibal of Angolan stories (sometimes appearing as a named 
'hero', Dikithi (Larson 1963)) with his one eye and a single leg made of 
beeswax, or the half-man, half-animal monsters of some tales in Malawi or 
the Congo. 28 We also meet various powerful monsters, giants, and spirits 
in West African stories, many of them man-eating but apparently less often 
physically deformed; a number of them are clearly closely related either to 
animals 29 or to the djinns and genies familiar from Islamic sources. In all 
these cases, the basically non-human and asocial character of these figures 
comes through clearly either by reason of their deformities or through their 
association with non-human creatures. 

Even without the appearance of exotic characters and settings, an 

28 It has been suggested by Posselt (1927: 36) that the emphasis on ogres and cannibals is 
rare among Central African groups compared to the warlike South African peoples (Zulu, 
Sotho, etc.). However, even if this is so with the Shona it certainly does not apply to other 
Central African peoples: we hear, for instance, of ogres in Lamba stories, cannibalistic 

'goblins' in Nyanja, Thonga ogre stories, etc. On the various related Bantu terms for these 
ogres in stories see A. Werner's review of Lindblom's Kamba Folklore 1928-30: 433; and 
Werner 1933: 174ff. 

29 Cf. the half-man, half-animal figure that occurs in many West African stories discussed 
in Calame-Griaule and Ligers 1961. 


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346 Oral Literature in Africa 

element of fantasy is often apparent. In one Sierra Leonean story, to give 
just one instance, a pregnant woman's belly grew 'as big as Sierra Leone 
and Great Britain put together' Innes 1964: 18). All over the continent kings 
are represented as possessing exaggerated wealth and power, heroes are 
revived from death, girls are wooed by hundreds and thousands of suitors, 
young men win whole kingdoms for themselves by force of arms or politic 
love, or hunters kill and capture fabulous beasts who bring them all their 
desires. In the areas strongly influenced by Islam, particularly on the East 
Coast, we also hear of sultans with wealthy and glittering entourages and 
of the miraculous assistance given to a hero by genies. 

The actual way in which the storyteller's imagination can combine 
fantastic elements with his knowledge of the real varies not only from society 
to society but also from narrator to narrator. Each has his own contribution 
to make of wit, satire, elegance, or moralizing. It is too simple to pick on just 
one element, like 'realism and lack of sentimentality' or 'placid serenity', and 
extrapolate this to apply to African narratives in general. 30 Some are realistic; 
some very definitely are not— unless by 'realism' one merely means that a 
narrator builds on his own experience of reality to add point and vividness 
to his literary inspiration, in which case assertions about 'realism' become 
meaningless. Similarly some stories may give an impression of serenity; others 
most definitely do not. It is better to say that the opportunities for various 
kinds of literary effect are exploited differently in different contexts, and that 
even when some of the themes are the same, the actual tone and impact of the 
story itself may vary in different areas and according to different narrations. 

Two brief stories can illustrate this point. In both there is an element 
of fantasy and a concentration on human action— but the stories are very 
different in tone. 

One Cannot Help an Unlucky Man 

There was a certain Man, a Pauper, he had nothing but husks for himself and 
his Wife to eat. There was another Man who had many Wives and Slaves 
and Children, and the two Men had farms close together. 

One day a Very-Rich-Man who was richer than either came, and was going 
to pass by on the road. He had put on a ragged coat and torn trousers, and a 
holey cap, and the People did not know that he was rich, they thought that 

30 As e.g. Johnston 1966: xli; Dadie 1964: 207. 


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13. Prose Narratives II. Content and Form 347 

he was a Beggar. Now when he had come up close, he said to the Rich-Man 
'Hail to you in your work', but when he had said 'Hail', the Rich-Man said 
'What do you mean by speaking to me, you may be a Leper for all we know!' 
So he went on, and came to the Poor-Man's farm, and said 'Hail to you in your 
work.' And the Poor-Man replied 'Um hum', 31 and said to his Wife 'Quick, 
mix some husks and water, and give him to drink.' So she took it to him, and 
knelt, 32 and said 'See, here is some of that which we have to drink.' So he said 
'Good, thanks be to God', and he put out his lips as if he were going to drink, 
but he did not really do so, he gave it back to her, and said 'I thank you.' 

So he went home and said 'Now, that Man who was kind to me I must 
reward.' So he had a calabash washed well with white earth, 33 and filled up 
to the top with dollars, and a new mat 34 was brought to close it. Then the 
Very-Rich-Man sent his Daughter, who carried the calabash, in front, and 
when they had arrived at the edge of the bush 35 he said 'Do you see that 
crowd of People over there working?' And she replied 'Yes, I see them.' He 
said 'Good, now do you see one Man over there working with his Wife?' And 
she replied 'Yes.' 'Good', he said, 'to him must you take this calabash.' Then 
she said 'Very well', and she passed on, and came to where the Poor-Man 
was, and said 'Hail', and continued 'I have been sent to you, see this calabash, 
I was told to bring it to you.' 

Now the Poor-Man did not open it to see what was inside, his poverty 
prevented him, 36 and he said 'Take it to Malam Abba, and tell him to take as 
much flour as he wants from it, and to give us the rest.' But when it had been 
taken to Malam Abba, he saw the dollars inside, and he put them into his 
pockets, and brought guinea-corn flour and pressed it down in the calabash, 
and said 'Carry it to him, I have taken some.' And the Poor-Man [when he 
saw that there was some flour left] said 'Good, thanks be to God, pour it into 
our calabash, 37 and depart, I thank you.' 

Now the Very-Rich-Man had been watching from a distance, and [when 
he saw what had happened] he was overcome with rage, and said 'Truly if 
you put an unlucky Man into a jar of oil he would emerge quite dry. 38 
I wanted him to have some luck, but God has made him thus.' 

(Tremearne 1913: 242-3) 

31 The correct reply, the intonation making it a sound of pleasure and not merely a rude 

32 A woman always kneels when handing food to a man. 

33 This can be used like whitewash, and the calabashes are coated outside. Here a mark of 

34 Little round grass mats which act as covers or lids. 

35 The farms are the only clearing in many parts where the population is not too plentiful. 

36 He was so hungry that he would have been unable to resist eating the whole, for he 
thought it contained food. 

37 So that she could take her own away again. 

38 A proverb, meaning that whatever you do for a man who is fated to be unlucky he will 
not profit by it. 


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348 Oral Literature in Africa 

Wacici and Her Friends 

Wacici was a very beautiful girl, admired by many people for her elegance 
and charm. Her girl friends were very jealous of her and always ill-treated 

One day her friends were going to visit a mwehani 39 to have their teeth 
filed, spaced, and beautified as girls used to do. Wacici joined them. He was 
a man of great fame who was highly reputed for his skill. They all had their 
teeth well done and the girls looked very attractive and charming, but no one 
looked as pretty as Wacici. The expert praised Wacici's teeth and beauty and 
added that she had natural beauty and charm in everything. This annoyed 
her girl friends very much. 

On their way home they stopped and talked to young men from time to 
time. They laughed as they spoke to the boys, 'Aha-aaa! Uuuuuu! Eia!' This is 
the most romantic laughter which was artificially employed by Gikuyu girls 
specially when speaking to boys. 'Aha-aaa! Uuuuuu! Eia!' They continued to 
laugh repeatedly as they spoke to young men and the boys would admire 
their teeth and their charm and sense of humour. 

'You have been to the tooth expert, have you not?' the boys inquired. 

'Aha-aaa! Uuuuuu! Eia!' The girls continued to laugh. 

'Wacici is looking most attractive (i.e. an expert in beautifying teeth), one 
boy remarked kindly, 'she is really gorgeous and wonderful.' And all the 
boys agreed and repeated this remark to Wacici. This infuriated the girls, 
who were very jealous of Wacici's beauty and many of them wanted her out 
of their company. 

The girls continued their journey towards their homes and on the way 
they all conspired to bury Wacici alive in a porcupine hole which was 
somewhere in the forest near the road. 

It was suggested that they should all enter the forest and gather some 
firewood to take back home as it was the custom that girls should return 
to their homes with some firewood after a day's outing. They all agreed to 
do this and Wacici particularly was very eager to take home some firewood. 
She was not only a beauty but also a very good girl who upheld the respect 
expected of Gikuyu girls, and her mother loved her dearly. 

When the girls reached the porcupine hole in the forest, they grabbed 
Wacici and pushed her down the hole and quickly buried her alive. She 
was taken by surprise and she did not have a chance to scream as she 
thought that they were playing with her. They did not beat her or do 
anything harmful to her body. They sealed the hole very carefully on top, 
quickly left the forest and returned to their homes; they did not speak to 

39 An expert in beautifying teeth. 


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13. Prose Narratives II. Content and Form 349 

anybody about Wacici. 

That evening Wacici did not return home. Her parents waited and waited. 
When she did not come they went about asking Wacici's friends if they had 
been with her that day or whether they had seen her anywhere. They all 
denied having been with her or seeing her anywhere that day. All this time 
Wacici was crying in the bottom of the porcupine hole in the forest while her 
parents were wandering all over the villages looking for her. 

'Where has she gone to?' her mother asked. 'Could a young man have 
eloped with her?' Her disappearance caused so much concern that her father 
had to go to consult witch-doctors and seers and ask what had become of 
his daughter. 

Next morning Wacici's father met somebody who had seen his daughter 
in company of the other village girls going to the tooth expert. He reported 
this to his wife and without wasting any time he went to see the dentist 
in order to verify this information. The dentist confirmed that Wacici and 
her friends had been to see him and that he had done their teeth on the 
day she was reported missing. Also on his way home Wacici's father met 
some young men who had seen and spoken to his daughter with the other 
village girls. He returned home and reported to his wife and the family all 
the information he had gathered. 

Wacici's brother, who knew most of the girls who were said to have been 
seen with his sister, had known for some time that most of the girls had been 
jealous, and hated Wacici. He suspected foul play. 

He left home quickly and tracked the route through which the girls had 
returned from the expert. He knew that if they gathered some firewood, 
they must have entered the forest on the way. He went into the forest to 
check if his sister had been killed there. 

When he came near the porcupine hole he noticed that it was freshly 
covered and that there were many footmarks which suggested that many 
people had been there. He examined them very carefully. He also saw a 
bundle of firewood which had been abandoned. This time Wacici could hear 
some noise and footsteps above her. She was crying and singing and calling 
her brother's name. 

Cinji! Chip! Cinji! Cinji! 

Nondakwirire-i! Cinji, I already told you, Cinji, 

Nothiganagwo-i! Cinji; t have been hated and spied on, Cinji; 

Cinji! Cinji! Cinji! Cinji! 

When he listened carefully he heard the voice of Wacici clearly and he had 
no doubt that she had been buried there by her girl friends who were jealous 
of her beauty. 

He called out, 'Wacici-i! Wacici!' Wacici heard him and she felt so happy 
that he had come to liberate her. She answered quickly, 'Yuu-uuu!' 

At once her brother started digging and removing the soil. He dug and 


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350 Oral Literature in Africa 

dug until he came to where she was sitting and crying. He carried her to 
the surface and examined her: she was in good shape except that she had 
weakened because of hunger and fear. He took her home and her parents 
were so happy to see her again. She was given a good bath and a lamb was 
slaughtered to offer thanksgiving to Mwene-Nyaga who had preserved her 

Wacici reported what her friends had done to her. The following 
morning the evil girls were arrested and sent to a trial before the elders in a 
tribunal court and their fathers were heavily fined. They had to pay many 
heads of cattle and many rams and bulls were slaughtered and a lot of beer 
had to be brewed for the judges and the elders to eat and drink. The bad 
girls were exposed and they were all shunned in society and were unable 
to get husbands for a long time. Wacici was widely respected and she got 
married and became a mother of many children and lived happily ever after. 
(Njururi 1966: 86-9) 

The characters in these tales are sometimes given names. Some societies 
have their own favourite named heroes, often of a trickster type, for 
instance the Lamba Kantanga (a little mischievous fellow), the Zanda Ture 
or Tule (an amusing rogue), the Zulu Uthlakanyana when appearing as a 
human (a deceitful and cunning little dwarf), the Fon Yo (a glutton with 
various supernatural powers), and so on. As with animal tales it would be 
misleading to assume that all these stories about named characters fall into 
clear-cut cycles in an attempt to give an overall and in principle unitary 
history of the hero. In some cases at least there seems to be no attempt 
at consistency or chronology, the stories are told as short independent 
narrations on different occasions, and their inclusion into one united 
narrative may represent the outlook of the Western systematizing scholar 
rather than the intentions of the narrators. 40 Other characters in African 
stories are named but totally independent in that they occur in only isolated 
stories. The names are merely taken, it seems, from everyday names in 
current use and given to a character for ease of reference. Or, alternatively, 
the name itself has meaning and contributes to the effect of the story, though 
without necessarily carrying on into other similar stories, like the Zande 
'Man-killer' and 'One-leg', or the Limba brothers 'Daring' and 'Fearful'. 

In very many cases, however, the characters are not given names. They 
appear just as 'a certain woman', 'a chief, 'a small boy', 'a hunter', 'two 
twins', and so on. Each literary culture has its own stock figures whose 
characteristics are immediately brought into the listeners' minds by their 

40 e.g. Callaway's presentation of the Zulu tales about Uthlakanyana (Callaway 1868). 


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13. Prose Narratives II. Content and Form 351 

mere mention. Thus the Ila are particularly fond of stories about fools (Smith 
and Dale ii 1920: 404ff), the Kamba especially like tales about those 'chosen 
from the extreme bracket of society' like the one-eyed, sickly orphan, widow, 
very poor or despised (Mbiti 1959: 257) and the Hausa, among others, make 
great play with the theme of the unfaithful wife. Some stock characters 
have wide application and appear in various contexts in the stories of 
many African peoples. We often hear of the actions of a jealous husband, a 
boaster, a skilful hunter, an absurdly, stupid person, a despised youngster 
making good, a wise old woman, an oppressive ruler, twins, good and bad 
daughters, or young lovers. The basic human dilemmas implied by so many 
of these figures have clearly brought inspiration to hundreds of story-tellers 
practising their otherwise diverse skills throughout the continent. 

When we come to consider the types of African stories usually termed 
'myths' we run into some difficulty. This is partly because 'mythology' is 
sometimes loosely used to cover all kinds of prose narratives, including 
ordinary animal tales and. stories about people. 41 More important, however, 
is the point that if we accept either the popular or the scholarly distinction 
of 'myth' from 'fictional' narrative; this does not seem to fit much of the 
African material. As it is not possible to touch on every single case it may 
be helpful to make some rather general comments about the problem of 
delimiting and discussing African 'myths'. This will involve recapitulating 
several points touched on earlier. 

One recent account of what is meant by 'myth' is that put forward by 
Bascom, based among other things on his assessment of how this term 
has been used by students of oral literature. This provides a convenient 
starting-point. He writes: 

Myths are prose narratives which, in the society in which they are told are considered 
to he truthful accounts of what happened in the remote past. They are accepted 
on faith; they are taught to be believed; and they can be cited as authority 
in answer to ignorance, doubt, or disbelief. Myths are the embodiment of 
dogma; they are usually sacred; and they are often associated with theology 
and ritual. Their main characters are . . . animals, deities, or culture heroes, 
whose actions are set in an earlier world, when the earth was different 
from what it is today, or in another world such as the sky or underworld . . . 

(Bascom 1965b: 4) a 

41 As in e.g. Werner's African Mythology, which includes chapters on 'Hare and Jackal 
Stories', 'Tortoise Stories/ etc., or Arnott's African Myths and Legends (1962) in which the 
largest single group consists of animal stories. 

42 The whole of this passage, and the article as a whole, is worth consulting. 


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352 Oral Literature in Africa 

This account fits well with the everyday connotations of the term 'myth' in 
terms of the content, the authoritative nature of these narratives, the way 
in which they are believed, and their special context and characters, often 
consciously distinguished from other less serious narratives. 

When this sense of the term is taken, it seems evident that myths in the 
strict sense are by no means common in African oral literature. This is in 
spite of the narratives presented as myths in many popular collections. 43 It 
is true that many of these have an aetiological element, refer to supernatural 
beings, or are concerned with events set in some remote time in the past. 
But they do not necessarily possess the other attributes of 'myths'— their 
authoritative nature and the way in which they are accepted as serious 
and truthful accounts. It is seldom, also, that we seem to find narratives 
depicting the activities of deities or other supernatural beings alone or 
even as the central subject 44 much more frequently the interest seems to 
be centred on human or animal characters with supernatural beings only 
appearing in secondary roles. Radin's remark in 1952 that cosmological 
myths are rare in Africa compared to their significance among, say, the 
Polynesians or American Indians (Radin 1952: 2) has not been invalidated 
by evidence produced since then. And one could go further and say that 
myths in any strict sense do not seem, on the evidence we have, to be a 
characteristic African form at all. 

It is worth pointing out the actual classifications made in several 
African societies between different types of narrative. Though these may 
not amount to a distinctive category of myth, they do provide a somewhat 
analogous though less marked contrast between more fictional tales and 
those said in some sense to be 'true'. This can be illustrated from three or 
four of the better-studied African cultures. 

First, the Fon of Dahomey. They generally distinguish in terminology 
between hwenoho and heho, a distinction only at first sight corresponding to 
'myth' as against 'fiction'. Hwenoho is literally 'time-old-story' and includes, 
to use Herskovits's terms, 'myths' (stories of the deities and the peopling 
of the earth), 'clan myth-chronicles' (telling of the origin and adventures 
of the powerful families), and 'verse-sequences' (sung by professional 
poets to memorize genealogies and events incorporated into ritual or law). 

43 e.g. Beier 1966a. It is highly doubtful whether these stories were really locally regarded 
as 'myths' in any full sense of the term. 

44 There are some exceptions to this in West Africa, where religious ideas sometimes find 
expression in a belief in pantheons of deities. 


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13. Prose Narratives II. Content and Form 353 

(Herskovits 1958: 17) These narratives are not presented with the same art 
and dramatization as more fictional tales, and tend to be told by specialists 
(priests, diviners, etc.) or within a small family group, particularly a 
family council. The elements of entertainment and of conscious artistry 
seem relatively unimportant. The second group of Fon narratives, the 
heho, covers more light-hearted stories. There are tales about various 
supernatural, human, and animal characters: about hunters, women, twins, 
orphans, or children-born-to-die; about the trickster-deity Legba or the 
mythical Yo with his gross appetites; and various kinds of explanatory and 
moralizing tales. All these latter stories are normally told at night. Some 
of them also occur in the context of divination 45 where they may appear 
on the surface to be obviously 'myths'— yet they are locally classified as 
heho. In fact, as Herskovits points out (1958: 25-26), the classifications are 
not absolutely clear-cut ones; there is overlap between them in terms of 
symbolic characterization, plot, motif, and function. 

In these and some other West African cases the local classifications bear 
some resemblance to the general distinction between 'folktale' (or ordinary 
fictional narrative) on the one hand and a blend of myth-legend on the 
other. 46 In other cases, however, either no such distinction is made at all, 
or else what there is makes rather different, sometimes more complicated 
groupings. The Kimbundu classifications, for example, divide narratives 
into three main groups (excluding the closely related proverbs, 7'isafrw). There 
are, first, the stories regarded as fictitious, misoso, arising from imagination. 
'Their object', writes Chatelain, 'is less to instruct than to entertain, and 
to satisfy the aspirations of the mind for liberty from the chains of space 
and time, and from the laws of matter' (Chatelain 1894: 21). This class 
includes animal tales and stories about the marvellous and supernatural. 
Secondly there are the maka, reputedly true stories or anecdotes. These are 
instructive as well as entertaining, and are socially didactic, concerned with 
how to live and act. Finally there are the 'historical narratives' — malunda or 
misendu — the chronicles of the tribe and nation transmitted by headmen 
or elders. They are considered to be state secrets and 'plebeians get only a 
few scraps from the sacred treasure of the ruling class' (Chatelain 1894: 21). 

Another local classification that does not exactly fit the standard folktale/ 
myth/legend typology is that of the Dogon. Their oral literature is divided 

45 The Fa or Ifa divination system is described in Ch. 7. 

46 For some further examples see Bascom 1965&. 


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354 Oral Literature in Africa 

into several categories. 47 There is, first, so nanay, 'true saying'. This includes 
the genealogies, back to the supposed time when all Dogon descended 
from the three sons of a common ancestor. It also includes accounts— how 
far appearing in narrative sequence it is not clear — about the deeds of the 
first ancestor and his descendants, and about the ancestors of each clan and 
the founding of the various contemporary villages. Then there are the tanye 
or tanye nanay (literally impossible or unbelievable but true). These are the 
'true' fantastic tales, which are believed by the teller to have happened; they 
took place, he holds, in the ancient times when things could happen that 
would now be impossible. These include what Lifchitz calls 'myths' —i.e. tales 
about, say, the origin of death or stories explaining the origin of various 
animal characteristics and so on. She goes on to point out, however, that 
it is only when told by elders or adult men, usually to educate the young, 
that these tales can really be called myths or 'true'; if they are told by 
the young among themselves they become just ordinary stories (elume). 
'Untrue' fantastic tales are termed tanye nanay la, i.e. incredible things that 
are not true. These are tales about events that not only could not but in 
fact, according even to the teller, never did take place, and take the form of 
fantastic stories often ending up with a dilemma. Distinct from all these are 
the stories (elme or elume) told to entertain children, often by the children 
themselves. These include stories about animals and can, at will, always 
be transformed into aetiological narratives by changing just one or two 
phrases and adding some such conclusion as 'and since then people have 
done that'. These tales are not usually told by adults but by young people 
while in the fields or during their time as herders. 

Other instances of complex indigenous classifications could also be 
cited. All of them make it difficult to draw any clear distinction between a 
'myth' and a 'folktale' if this is to have any basis in local terminology. 

There are also many cases in which no distinctions at all in the 
terminology seem normally to be made between different types of narrative. 
The West African Limba, for instance, mostly use the single term mboro 
to cover all kinds of narratives, the Yao of Malawi similarly use ndano of 
tales in general (Macdonald 1882: 48), the Azande have no distinct term 
for 'myth' (Evans-Pritchard 1967: 31-2), while for the Hunde of the eastern 
Congo migani equally covers 'contes, fables, legendes' (Viaene 1955: 212). 

What light does this discussion of terminology throw on the occurrence 

47 This follows Lifchitz's account in Africa 13, 1940. See also Calame-Griaule 1965: 447ff . 


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13. Prose Narratives II. Content and Form 355 

or nature of 'myths' in African oral literature? Amid the variety of 
classifications a few general points emerge. 

First there is the frequent absence of any specific term that would exactly 
translate our term 'myth'. It is true that the absence of the word need not 
imply the non-occurrence of the thing. But it is certainly suggestive if the 
local terminology either makes no distinction at all within narratives or a 
distinction on different lines from those of the foreign theorist. 

Then there are the cases where there are local distinctions analogous 
to the familiar one between folktale and myth (or perhaps more often 
between folktale and myth-legend). Here it often appears that the crucial 
differentiating factors are not so much the content or the characters of the 
narratives but the context in which they are told. Thus among the Fon and 
the Ashanti the serious and 'true' narratives, the 'myths', are told within 
circumscribed groups or are limited to a select group of elders who guard 
them with care. They are used in serious discussion during the day, as 
distinct from the entertaining stories of the evenings. Certain of the same 
factors recur in the otherwise rather different cases of the Kimbundu and 
the Dogon. Among the former the malunda (historical narratives that might 
by more superficial commentators have been classed as 'myths') are secret, 
known only to the politically influential; and the Dogon tanye nanay are 
regarded as 'myths' when told in one type of context and merely as stories 
in another. 

It emerges that in trying to distinguish different categories of African 
oral narrations, in particular potential 'myths', it may be more fruitful to 
look not primarily at subject-matter but at context. Questions about the 
circumstances in which the narrations take place, their purpose and tone, 
the type of narrator and audience, the publicity or secrecy of the event, 
and, finally, even the style of narration may be more crucial than questions 
about content and characters. Unfortunately it is precisely about these 
former factors that we are often least well informed: subject-matter is so 
much more easily observed than the more significant and more subtle 
aspects of narrations. We know, for instance, of the many aetiological tales 
or of those including references to certain supernatural beings or events. 
But without also being informed about the context of narration, there is 
no justification for glibly assigning them to the class of 'myths'. Indeed, all 
we do know about the contextual aspect leads to the impression that these 
are probably ordinary stories, not authoritative myths. The point is that we 
cannot decide by subject alone, we must know about context. 


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356 Oral Literature in Africa 

A further point that stands out is that with the probable exception 
of certain West African narratives, religious beliefs seem often not to be 
regularly enshrined in narrative sequence at all. This emerges partly from 
the local terminologies which, in East, South, and Central Africa, seldom 
have a word to cover the literary formulation of these beliefs. The published 
narratives apparently relating to religious phenomena seem (in the cases 
where they are not just ordinary stories) to be elicited narratives: it is 
not clear that they would have been expressed in narrative and literary 
form, were it not for the request of the collector. If, however, we knew 
more about the contexts and circumstances of narration in general, this 
assessment might in fact turn out to be mistaken. But it is noticeable that it 
is particularly among those collectors who have had the closest knowledge 
of the peoples they are writing about that we find a telling absence of any 
reference to or inclusion of religious narratives, or even an explicit denial 
that these play any significant role at all in the local oral literature. 48 

It is probably possible to find some exceptions to this general lack of 
literary expression of religious ideas in much of Africa. The Bushmen 
may perhaps provide one instance of this, and the Pygmies or some of 
the Nilotic or West African peoples may provide others. It is possible that 
other exceptions may also emerge, particularly when more is known of the 
contexts in which religious beliefs are expressed. But at the moment the 
general impression remains of the lack of formulated religious narratives 
among most African peoples. Herskovits summed this up well in 1946 
(though, because of his preconceptions, it led him to the different conclusion 
that the commentators had just inexplicably failed to record the religious 
narratives that he presumed must have existed). He observed: 

Except for West Africa, narrative myth sequences appear only rarely in 
the literature . . . From the point of view of the student who approaches 
mythology as a literary phenomenon, what is lacking is the presentation 
of the narrative sequences, as told by natives, of events in the supernatural 
world that are believed to have brought about the situations described .... 

(Herskovits 1960 (1946): 447-8) 

Publications since the time of his remark give no cause to revise that general 

This lengthy discussion has been necessary because of the way it is 
presumed that myths must exist and play a part in African oral literature, 

48 e.g. Lindblom and Mbiti (Kamba), Doke (Lamba), Junod (Thonga and Ronga), Cagnolo 
(Kikuyu), Chatelain (Kimbundu), Theal (Xhosa), Jacottet (Sotho). 


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13. Prose Narratives II. Content and Form 357 

and the consequent inclusion in many collections of stories that are claimed 
to be myths. However, with a few exceptions there is an absence of any solid 
evidence for myth as a developed literary form in most areas of Africa. It is 
possible that further research, particularly into the local classifications and 
the contextual background of oral narratives, may reverse this conclusion. 
But from what has been published to date it seems clear that myth in the 
full sense of the term has not developed as a typical art form in African oral 

This discussion leads us on naturally to the question of legends and 
historical narratives generally in African oral literature. The two terms are 
really synonymous in their denotation, although 'legends' seems to have 
become the commoner term when describing oral historical narratives or, 
sometimes, those in whose truth the commentator himself has little faith. 
This general class of narratives covers those which are regarded locally as 
true, particularly by the narrator himself and his immediate audience, but 
differ from 'myths' in being set in a much less remote period when the 
world was much as it is today. They depict the deeds of human rather than 
supernatural heroes and deal with, or allude to, events such as migrations, 
wars, or the establishment of ruling dynasties. 49 

In discussing this group of narrations, some of the same points should 
be made as were made earlier about myths. The local classifications, for 
one thing, do not always coincide with our analytical distinction between 
historical and fictional narratives. Again, the degree of 'belief in a particular 
narrative is one of the hardest of things to assess. Even in a familiar society 
this is notoriously difficult— but it is even more difficult in unfamiliar 
cultures; it is made more difficult still in that investigators have taken 
very little interest in this question. 50 It is clear that the recorded words by 
themselves or the mere description of the deeds of various human heroes 
often give us no inkling about the authority or lack of authority locally 

49 See the definition of 'legend' in Bascom 1965b: 4-5, from which the above account is 
largely drawn. My discussion here is not concerned with the large question of the 
historical accuracy of legends and oral narratives in general and thus leaves aside the 
much discussed problem of the dependability of oral traditions for historical research 
(on which see e.g. Vansina 1965 and references given there); I might add, however, that 
in view of the inherent variability of oral expression and the significance of the literary 
aspect, I am rather doubtful how far we can regard oral literary forms as providing much 
evidence for actual events in earlier periods. 

50 There is a good discussion of this in Evans-Pritchard 1967: 24ff. Cf. also Lindblom's 
comment on the difficulty of deciding whether Kamba explanatory tales are serious or 
humorous (Lindblom ii, 1935: iii). 


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358 Oral Literature in Africa 

attached to these descriptions. Questions about the context, circumstances, 
purpose, and personnel involved, all of which could throw more light on 
the problem of credence, are usually all ignored. Finally, one must repeat 
the point already made that well-known and agreed beliefs need not 
necessarily find their expression in narrative or literary form at all. 
Genealogies, origins, lines of succession, the famous deeds of past rulers— all 
these can be known and recognized in a society without necessarily being 
found in any literary genre. Or, if they do find literary expression, this 
may take the common African form of panegyric poetry rather than prose 

It has been necessary to sound this note of caution because of the facile 
assumptions on which so many collections and references in this field are 
based. We are not infrequently given examples of 'legends' in published 
collections without any evidence about whether the narratives are regarded 
as true in any sense. 51 Sometimes even the minimum formal requirements 
for classifying a tale as a 'legend' are lacking. 52 Again, it is too often assumed 
that any knowledge of the past must always find expression in literary form. 
The result is that the content of 'oral traditions' is constantly referred to, 
without evidence, as being expressed in sustained literary form, or such 
traditions are elicited and recorded by the historian or anthropologist in 
narrative form without any consideration for whether this is an indigenous 
type of formulation, and, if so, in what contexts and forms it spontaneously 
appears. We are, in short, so often given either just the narrative with no 
reference to its context, or else just a reference to the context and content 
without any indication of how far this knowledge is crystallized in narrative 
form, that one is sometimes tempted to wonder whether historical narrative 
is in fact anything like as important as is usually assumed as a form of oral 
literature in the non-Islamic areas of Africa. 

This said, we can go on to consider the real instances of legends and 
historical narratives (or, at least, the clear elements of this form that appear 
in association with other literary genres). There seems generally to be far 

51 e.g. K. Arnott 1962; Werner 1933; J. Maes, 'Mythes et legendes sur rallume-feu', Africa 
9, 1936 (Congo); Vanneste 1949 (Alur); Werner 1913; de Clercq 1909, 1912; John-Parsons 
1958; Terrisse 1963. 

52 e.g. Turnbull's collection entitled 'Legends of the BaMbuti' (1959) in. which, even on his 
own account, the great majority are ordinary imaginative stories about people, animals, 
spirits, and the various tricks used among them. The same applies to Ogumefu's Yoruba 
Legend (1929), the 'legends of the tortoise' in Werner 1933, and many other similar 


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13. Prose Narratives II. Content and Form 359 

more literary interest in historical narrative — in the deeds of historical 
heroes in the not so remote past— than in myths (in the sense of the actions 
of deities in the furthest past or of cosmological speculations). 

It is particularly in the areas deeply influenced by Arabic cultural 
traditions that historical narrative seems to emerge most clearly as a 
sharply differentiated and distinctive art form, sometimes even referred 
to by a term derived from the Arabic. 53 But in other areas too more serious 
narrations concerned with historical events may be distinguished as a 
separate literary form. 

Thus we have the Yoruba iton (or itan), which refers mainly to 
historical narratives and seems to include both creation stories (which are 
sometimes classed as 'myths') and conquest legends about how Oduduwa, 
the legendary ancestor of the Yoruba, and his descendants spread out 
through the various contemporary kingdoms, towns, and lineages of the 
Yoruba. 54 These histories, it appears, were told among those most closely 
concerned— the people of the particular town or lineage — and were not 
presented in as formalized or detailed a form as the corresponding praise 
poems (Lloyd 1955). But they do seem to have had a fairly clear literary 
framework, which is exploited by the fashion for published Yoruba 
histories of towns in written form. 

Strong historical traditions that are expressed in narrative form are 
also of marked importance among many of the inter-lacustrine Bantu 
kingdoms of East Africa. Again, this tradition has flowered recently with 
many versions of such historical chronicles now appearing in vernacular 
written forms. 55 

The narratives of the Congolese Nkundo about the life and exploits 
of their national hero, Lianja, are remarkable for their length and detail. 56 
In fact, the sustained forms in which these Nkundo narrations have been 
published probably give a misleading impression: collectors have pieced 
together many different tales to make up one written 'epic' account, and 
it is highly doubtful whether in fact these tales were really narrated and 

53 e.g. the habaru and gisa forms of the North Cameroons Fulani (Mohamadou 1963: 71). 

54 See e.g. Lloyd 1955 (mainly a discussion of what would normally be classed as legends); 
Beier 1955; Wyndham 1921; Johnson 1921, Chaps. 1 and 2, and passim. 

55 e.g. Kagwa 1934a and the chronicles associated with various kingdoms and places 
published in several issues of the Uganda Journal and elsewhere. 

56 Among the large literature on various aspects of this 'epic' see e.g. Boelaert 1949, 1957; 
de Rop 1964; and for discussion of a written version based on it de Rop 1958. See also 
discussion in the Note on Epic (Ch. 4). 


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360 Oral Literature in Africa 

conceived as part of one vast design. The degree of belief involved is also 
not very clear. Still, there are indications that these narrations were fairly 
frequent and that the occasions on which they were told were dramatic 
ones, the main narrator being helped by a chorus. The narrative relates 
the deeds of Lianja's parents, his mother's pregnancy, and the birth of the 
hero and his sister Nsongo, Lianja's battles with his father's murderer, 
his wanderings in search of a place for his people and his settlement of 
them there (a section very subject to variation and endless, often fantastic 
elaboration), and, finally, his ascent into the sky. A brief extract can illustrate 
the type of narration involved: 

Un jour, au temps de Wai, sa femme, Boluka devient enceinte . . . Et voila que 
la grossesse de Boluka depasse le terme: accoucher, elle ne le peut; grossir, 
elle ne le fait; elle reste comme avant. Les gens ne font que se moquer d'elle. 
Un jour Boluka prend des calebasses et va puiser de l'eau au ruisseau. 
Pendant qu'elle y va elle ne cesse de pleurer: 

Depuis que Wai est parti, ma 
que fait cette grossesse, ma 

qui n'avance pas. ma 

Et pendant qu'elle puise comme ca de l'eau au ruisseau elle entend comme 
si un homme bougeait dans les herbes. Elle s'effraie et dit: 'Qui est la?' Elle 
voitune vieille femme. La vieille dit: 'Ne fuis pas. Car je viens chez toi parce 
que tu pleures sur ta grossesse et que tu n'accouches pas. Viens que je te 
touche au ventre.' Boluka s'approche d'elle; la femme touche son ventre et 
un oeuf est la, comme un oeuf de perroquet. La vieille dit: Boluka, regarde, 
ta grossesse c'etait cet ceuf . Donne-le moi, que je le garde pour toi, et demain 
matin apporte-moi a manger.' Boluka lui donne l'oeuf . 

Le lendemain Boluka prepare des vivres, les prend et vient a la place 
convenue: elle voit la vieille arriver avec un tres bel enfant, Elle dit: Boluka, 
void ton enfant.' Boluka le prend et lui donne le sein. La vieille dit: 'Donne-moi 
l'enfant, cherche ton manioc et pars.' Quand la mere a sorti le manioc de 
l'eau, elle dit: 'Donne-moi l'enfant.' La vieille: 'Non, non, l'enfant doit rester; 
toi, retourne et viens encore ici demain avec vivres.' 

Boluka retourne, prepare des vivres et les porte a l'enfant et a la vieille, 
la-bas au ruisseau. L'enfant qui n'etait qu'un nourrisson hier est devenu un 
grand garcon. (Boelaert 1949: 9-10) 

Finally, one must mention the clear historical interest that has evidently 
characterized many of the legends and narratives of kingdoms of the Western 
Sudan. Here there is a tradition of Arabic culture and of written historical 
chronicles in either Arabic or local languages — a tradition that has affected 


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13. Prose Narratives II. Content and Form 361 

oral literary forms. 57 The examples given so far have mainly been drawn 
from the powerful kingdoms of traditional Africa. This is no coincidence. It 
is evident that it is in these kingdoms in particular that there are manifest 
political advantages in propagating certain historical interpretations of the 
past whether in the form of 'myths' or of 'legends'. Narratives purporting 
to recount, for instance, how the ancestors of the present ruling houses first 
came to the area as saviours, or first settlers, or even victorious conquerors 
(all common themes) provide a justification for the continued position and 
power of these houses in the present. The 'mythical charter' thus given 
by the stories can be an important support for the existing distribution of 
political power, and it is not surprising that in these conditions there is a 
marked emphasis on history 58 (However, even here, panegyric poetry seems 
often in fact to have surpassed prose history in both literary specialism and 
political propaganda (see Ch. 5, also Whiteley 1964: 7)). 

In the uncentralized societies of Africa, even if historical narratives are 
less conspicuous they certainly exist. Even in egalitarian communities it is 
common for various families and villages to have stories about their origins 
and ancestors, and sometimes these are expressed in narrative form. Among 
the Lugbara of Uganda, for instance, historical narratives (termed 'myths' 
by Middleton) justify not the position of ruling houses but present-day social 
relationships between families and groups (Middleton 1954). Sometimes 
such historical tales are told not so much for their sanctioning effect as for 
their sheer entertainment value. 

All in all there certainly are instances of historical narratives that play a 
more significant part in African literature than do the 'myths' we explored 
earlier. But when we look closely at the evidence we have to admit the 
surprising fact that it hardly sustains the generally accepted view of the great 
importance of this form as a specialized literary type in non-Islamic Africa. 
In many cases these narratives appear only as elements in other narrations, 
or they appear as elicited or pieced-together recordings by foreign collectors 
rather than as spontaneous art forms. Altogether much more research needs 
to be done on the indigenous contexts, tone, and classifications of 'historical 
narratives' before we can make assertions about them. 

57 e.g. to cite just a few instances, Delafosse 1913, Wade 1964 (Wolof ); East 1935 (Adamawa 
Fulani); Adam 1940; Arnett 1909-10; Solken 1959-60; 1963. For various translations or 
paraphrases of Arabic chronicles see e.g. Houdas and Delafosse 1913 (on the Songhai 
empire); Delafosse and Gaden 1913; Arnett 1922. 

58 As pointed out e.g. by Whiteley 1964: 7; see also the references given in Vansina 1965: 


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362 Oral Literature in Africa 


So far we have been considering the conclusions that, with all their 
problems and uncertainties, we can still make from the many published 
collections of African narratives — about their distribution, subject-matter, 
and, to some extent, literary types. This final section will, in contrast, be 
devoted to a brief consideration of questions that so far have been hardly 
explored in published sources. 

The first point is an obvious one. In the case of oral literature the actual 
occasions, performers, and purpose of the narrations are obviously of vital 
importance. As far as the occasions go, we do know a certain amount. It 
has been made clear in many publications that a very common context for 
telling stories is in the evening when the day's work is over. In some cases, 
this general pattern is even expressed as a definite rule. Some imagined 
sanction is suggested to frighten those tempted to break it— like the Zulu 
or Transvaal Ndebele threat that anyone who tells stories in the day-time 
will grow horns, or the parallel assertion among the Kamba that their cattle 
would perish if tales were told in the day 59 In other cases the limitation 
to the evening hours seems to be made merely from convenience, not 
compulsion. In certain circumstances stories are also told during the day— for 
instance, when people have to spend long hours on long-drawn-out but 
not very exacting tasks like herding, mending fishing-nets, or guarding 
crops from birds and animals. 

The normal pattern seems to be for a number of relatively short, 
self-contained stories to be told during an evening story-telling session. 
But there are also occasional instances of serial stories. We hear of Mende 
'endless stories' (Innes 1964: 16-17) or the Kalabari practice of carrying 
on with the 'same' story— albeit one without a very tight plot or over-all 
view— night after night, often stopping at an exciting point (Horton, personal 
communication) . 

Occasionally we hear of story-telling sessions of a highly specialized kind 
like the Tuareg evening parties, presided over by some woman famous for 
her wit, in which story-telling, music, and cultivated conversation all play 
their part in creating popular and highly valued occasions (Chadwiks iii 
1940: 666). Most are less formal, however. They are very frequently started 
off by the asking of riddles, usually by children. As the evening wears 

59 How seriously these statements are taken, at least by adults, is not at all clear, however. 


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13. Prose Narratives II. Content and Form 363 

on these are followed by stories delivered with more art and, relatively, 
more seriousness. Finally people lose interest or are too sleepy to continue. 
However, not very many detailed accounts have been produced about 
these and other occasions for story-telling. 

The stories are told according to the local conventions about the 
suitable personnel and order— sometimes by just a few outstanding 
narrators, sometimes according to a rotation round each participant in turn, 
sometimes by whoever has the story 'thrown on to him' by the last teller. 
'Myths' and 'legends' are more often told during the day, often in the course 
of solemn discussions or gatherings about serious matters. But in these 
cases in particular, details about such occasions are usually lacking. For all 
types of narrative, in fact, further investigation of their contexts is needed. 

The position of the story-teller himself is central to any discussion of the 
context or purpose of the various narrations. But here very little is said by 
collectors— even less than about the occasions on which they are told. Most 
editors, indeed, do not even include the names of those who told them the 
stories, far less give details about their background or position in the local 
community 60 

The degree of specialism conventionally expected of story-tellers is 
often unclear. In some societies, we are told, there are at least a few 
'professional' story-tellers who travel from one village to another, and, 
presumably, live on their art: this has been asserted of, among others, 
the Temne, Hausa, and Yoruba of West Africa, Yao of East Africa, and 
the Bulu, Rwanda, and possibly the Pygmies of Central and West 
Equatorial Africa. 61 It might perhaps be questioned how far all these 
men were really professionals in the sense of gaining their livelihood 
purely from literary activity or, even so, whether this referred merely to 
the telling of prose stories. Often the references are no more than brief 
assertions in passing. 

What is certain, however, is that story-telling is usually practised by 
non-professionals. Leading story-tellers like the Limba Karanke Dema for 
instance are recognized as possessing a certain degree of specialist skill, 

60 Among the few exceptions to this one can mention Chatelain 1894, Steere 1906, Equilbecq 
1913-16, Hulstaert 1965, Dijkmans 1965, Finnegan 1967. 

61 See, respectively, Cronise and Ward 1903: 8 (Temne); Johnston 1966: xxx; Leith-Ross 1939: 
86 (Hausa); Ellis 1894: 243 (Yoruba and Ewe); Whiteley 1964: 8 (Yao); Krug 1949: 350; 
Hurel 1922: 1; Trilles 1932: 235 (Pygmies); cf. also the mention of an 'official story-teller' 
to the king among the Luba, according to Donohugh and Berry 1932: 180. 


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364 Oral Literature in Africa 

but this is a spare-time skill only. In most instances there is no evidence 
that any material reward accrues to the story-teller, however great his 
expertise. Though some individuals are clearly regarded as more expert 
than others, story-telling typically tends to be a popular rather than a 
specialist art. All, it appears, are potentially expert in story-telling and 
are, with some limitations, prepared to take part in the evening occasions 
when stories are being told and exchanged in social gatherings. There is 
thus no African parallel to the specialist privileged class of narrators to be 
found, say, in Polynesia (Radin 1952: 14). 

The limitations on this general mastery of the art of storytelling arise from 
local conventions about the age and sex of the narrators. In some societies, 
it appears, these are quite free; in others there is a definite emphasis on one 
or another category as being the most suitable one for a story-teller. In some 
areas it is the women, often the old women, who tend to be the most gifted, 
even when the stories themselves are universally known. 62 Elsewhere it is 
men who tend to be the more expert (e.g. Limba, Hausa, Fang, Pygmies), 
and this applies particularly to the more serious types of narration (myths 
and legends). 63 In other cases again, certain stories (perhaps particularly 
animal stories) are felt to be the preserve of children and to be most suitably 
told by and to them even though adults know them and sometimes join 
in (e.g. Ibo, Dogon, Galla). Tales told by and for children can scarcely be 
judged on a par with those by adults, and the particular preoccupations of 
certain narrations might well be elucidated if we knew whether, say, they 
were typically narrated by women. 64 

The same point arises from the question of the audiences for whom these 
stories are intended. In some cases at least it is clear that certain categories 
of stories are designed primarily for children and are told to them either by 
other children or by the old women (see the instances cited above). But in 
other instances either this is not known or the collector has not thought it 
worth while to describe the audience. Such topics, which could be crucial 
for an assessment of the social and literary significance of the texts, are 
most often left to the reader's uninformed imagination. 

This leads directly to the question of the functions and purpose 

62 This is a common southern African pattern, e.g. among the Thonga, Ronga, Zulu, and 
Xhosa; it is also mentioned for the Fjort and, in the case of certain types of tales at least, 
for the Cameroons Fulani. 

63 Cf. also the special case of stories introduced into the Yoruba Ifa divination process 
(Ch. 7) which are delivered by fully professional diviners (male). 

64 See the treatment of this in Kilson 1961. 


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13. Prose Narratives II. Content and Form 365 

of stories and of the various types of narrations. Since it was argued 
earlier that under the influence of functionalist anthropology (see Ch. 12, 
p. 330ff.), too much attention has been paid to this question, it might seem 
contradictory to include it here in a discussion of topics which need more 
investigation. But the earlier assertions about utilitarian function often 
depended on very doubtful assumptions. While it is true that the moral, 
sanctioning, and justifying functions do sometimes form one aspect of the 
stories which we might otherwise have missed, many questions remain. 
In studying the oral literature of any particular people, we want to know, 
for instance, about the views of the people themselves (or, sometimes 
more significantly, about the views of different groups among them) 
concerning the purpose and functions of their narrations; about local 
classifications of different types of narrations and whether these have any 
relevance for native assessments of their aims and nature; about how far 
individuals, or people in general, are prepared to verbalize their attitude 
to their stories; about the consistency or otherwise of their stated views 
(as well as that of the actual narrations, audiences, and contexts involved); 
and about the relative weighting they would give, perhaps varying in 
different contexts or at different periods, to the various elements involved 
such as entertainment, imagination, education, practice in public 
speaking, recording, humour, elegance, ridicule, obscenity, moralizing, 
etc. 65 Of course, even then we need to remember that, as in the case of 
written literature, there can be no final definition of the purpose and use 
of oral literature. 

Amid all the theorizing about the possible functions of stories there is 
one point which, it seems, is too often overlooked. This is the likelihood 
that within a culture stories are likely to have many functions. They will 
probably vary with the content and tone — compare, for instance, the three 
different Kikuyu stories quoted in this chapter. Even more important are 
the details of the occasion on which a story is told— including the audience, 
the narrator's state of mind, and recent events in the locality. Again, 
intentions affect the possible functions of stories. We could illustrate this 
with the way in which some Christians now try to turn stories in the Congo 
into Christian allegories (Stappers 1962: 14), or the political purposes to 
which origin stories have recently been put in Gabon (Fernandez 1962), or 
Western Nigeria. This point about varying functions is an obvious one, but 

65 For useful general discussions of various possible functions of African stories see Bascom 
1965a; Fisher 1963; E. W. Smith, 'The function of folktales', Afr. Affairs 39, 1940. 


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366 Oral Literature in Africa 

it has often been neglected. It is only too tempting to pick on just one aspect 
or one transient function and try to extrapolate it to apply to all stories on 
all occasions. 

The idea that African stories are above all designed to convey morals 
has caught the imagination not only of functionalist anthropologists but 
also of some of the Nigritude writers (e.g. Thiam 1948; Dadie 1957; Colin 
1957; Adewa 1938). This assumption is made so often that it is worth 
challenging it in detail. Certainly some stories do end with a moral or a 
proverb (though in some cases this does not seem an integral part of the 
tale). Also stories are sometimes told to educate or admonish children, 
and this class of tales may even have a special local term. 66 But there is no 
evidence at all to suggest that this is the only or the primary aim of the 
stories — and plenty of evidence that many African tales contain neither 
direct nor indirect moralizing. This single Hausa story is merely one of 
innumerable examples of this. Here a realistic appraisal of the ways of the 
world outshadows, even ridicules, any attempt to moralize. 

Falsehood is More Profitable than Truth 

This is about certain Men, the King of Falsehood and the King of Truth, 67 
who started off on a journey together, and the King of Lies said to the King 
of Truth that he [the latter] should get food for them on the first day. They 
went on, and slept in a town, but they did not get anything to eat, and next 
morning when they had started again on the road, the King of Truth said to 
the King of Lies 'In the town where we shall sleep to-night you must get our 
food', and the King of Lies said 'Agreed.' 

They went on, and came to a large city, and lo, the Mother of the King of 
this city had just died, and the whole city was mourning, and saying 'The 
Mother of the King of this city has died.' Then the King of Lies said 'What is 
making you cry?' And they replied 'The King's Mother is dead.' Then he said 

'You go and tell the King that his Mother shall arise.' [So they went and told 
the King, and] he said 'Where are these Strangers?' And the People replied 

'See them here.' So they were taken to a large house, and it was given to them 
to stay in. 

In the evening, the King of Lies went and caught a Wasp, the kind of 

66 e.g. the Ila kashimi (byword) stories which, unlike other Ila stories, have a definite 
didactic aim (Smith and Dale ii, 1920: 343). 

67 These titles do not refer to the powers of good and evil, much less to God and Satan. King 
or chief is merely a title, and corresponds somewhat to our captain. 


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13. Prose Narratives II. Content and Form 367 

Insect which makes a noise like 'Kurururu', and he came back, and put it in 
a small tin, and said 'Let them go and show him the grave.' When he had 
arrived, he examined the grave, and then he said 'Let everyone go away.' No 
sooner had they gone, than he opened the mouth of the grave slightly, he 
brought the Wasp and put it in, and then closed the mouth as before. Then 
he sent for the King, and said that he was to come and put his ear to the 
grave — meanwhile this Insect was buzzing — and when the King of the city 
had come, the King of Lies said 'Do you hear your Mother talking?' Then 
the King arose; he chose a Horse and gave it to the King of Lies; he brought 
Women and gave them to him; and the whole city began to rejoice because 
the King's Mother was going to rise again. 

Then the King of Lies asked the King of the city if it was true that his 
Father was dead also, and the King replied 'Yes, he is dead.' So the King of 
Lies said 'Well, your Father is holding your Mother down in the grave; they 
are quarrelling', and he continued 'Your Father, if he comes out, will take 
away the chieftainship from you', and he said that his Father would also kill 
him. When the King had told the Townspeople this, they piled up stones on 
the grave, 68 and the King said 'Here, King of Lies, go away; I give you these 
horses', and he continued that so far as his Mother was concerned, he did 
not want her to appear either. 

Certainly falsehood is more profitable than truth in this world. 

(Tremearne 1913: 204-6) 

Other aspects that could be further explored are the various literary 
conventions in the narrations of particular cultures. By this I mean not so 
much the larger questions like plot or character, though these too deserve 
more study, but points like phraseology, stock treatment of certain minor 
episodes, favourite allusions, and the kind of openings and conclusions 
that are found satisfying or attractive in a particular culture. 

The type of language used often seems to be simple and straightforward. 
This is, however, at times rendered less prosaic by various devices, 
including a more frequent use of ideophones, dramatic delivery and 
dialogues, and the interruption of the prose exposition by songs. The 
language of the stories shows little of the allusive and obscure quality 
of some African poetry (except in the interpolated songs). But on this 
whole subject we have so far merely impressions; much further detailed 
investigation of the language of narratives as actually delivered is still 
required. 69 

68 So as to keep the father in. 

69 There is a good description of style in Mende story-telling in Innes 1964; see also Jones 
and Carter 1967. 


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368 Oral Literature in Africa 

About opening and closing formulas we do know a great deal. In 
various forms these are common in all areas of Africa (though it is 
not always clear how far they are obligatory for all tellers rather than 
idiosyncratic to particular informants): they occur too frequently to need 
detailed references. 70 Thus among the Kamba tellers end their stories 
with various stylized forms, usually a wish for narrator and audience 
to the former's advantage: 'May you become rich in vermin in your 
provision-shed, but I in cows in my cattle-kraal'; 'May your cattle eat 
earth and mud, but mine the good grass'; or, finally, 'You'd better swing 
with the tail of a panther while I swing with that of a sheep' — in other 
words the teller is to be better off than his listeners (a sheep's tail is fat 
and edible) and the audience had better learn to tell stories themselves 
(Lindblom i, 1928: xi; Mbiti 1959: 255). Other closing formulas include 
the Nigerian Bura 'Do not take my life, take the life of a crocodile' 
(notorious for its long life), the Swahili 'If this is good, its goodness 
belongs to us all, and if it is bad, its badness belongs to that one alone 
who made this story', the Angolan Kimbundu 'I have told my little story, 
whether good or bad', the Hausa 'Off with the rat's head', or the Akan 
'This my story, which I have related, if it be sweet, (or) if it be not sweet, 
take some elsewhere, and let some come back to me'. 71 In these closing 
formulas the narrator hands over, as it were, to the audience, as well as 
making it clear that his story is concluded. 

Conversely the opening formulas serve to rouse the interest of the 
audience, sometimes eliciting a formal response from them as well as 
setting the mood for the start of the narration. Among the Fjort of West 
Equatorial Africa the narrator opens with 'Let us tell another story; let 
us be off!'; the narrator repeats 'Let us be off: the audience replies 'Pull 
away!'; and the narrator can then embark on the story itself (Dennett 
1898: 25). Similarly, among the West African Ewe, where a narrator is 
usually accompanied by a drum, a few beats are first played to call 
attention and then the narrator announces his subject: 'My story is of 
so-and-so'; the audience replies 'We hear' or 'We take it up' and the 
recital begins (Ellis 1890: 269). Many other formal introductory phrases 
could be mentioned: the Hausa A story, a story. Let it go, let it come'; 

70 Possibly they are not so frequent in southern Africa, but this impression may be due to 
lack of interest by local collectors or because I have missed this point in the sources. 

71 Helser 1930: 11; Steere 1906: 137; Chatelain 1894: 21, 51, 63; Rattray i, 1913: 48, 66 etc. (and 
cf. the long closing Housa form given in Tremearne 1913: 11-12); 1930: 3 etc.) 


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13. Prose Narratives II. Content and Form 369 

or 'See her (the spider), see her there' with the reply 'Let her come, and 
let us hear'; the Central African Nilyamba 'A story. How does it go?'; or 
the famous Akan 'We do not really mean, we do not really mean [that 
what we are going to say is true']. 72 All such phrases serve to involve 
the audience directly in the narration and to mark the formal opening 
or close of the story. 

There are also other less obvious phrases that are worth study. These 
are, so to speak, the internal formulas by which the story is begun 
and ended. Thus all Limba stories tend to open (after the introductory 
formulas) with a phrase setting them firmly in the fairly remote past 
(rather like our 'Once upon a time')— A woman once came out (on the 
earth)', A spider once got up and . . .', A chief once married a wife . . .', 
and so on. A Kamba tale often opens with the more dramatic 'How did 
it happen . . .' (Lindblom I, 1928: x), the Kimbundu with the generalizing 
T often tell of . . .' (Chatelain 1894:21 etc.), while the Luba employ what 
is perhaps a favourite device for bringing the protagonists directly and 
vividly on to the stage by an opening like 'That which did — leopard and 
bushbuck' (or whoever the main actors are) (Burton 1935: 69; 75). The 
stock endings, in both phraseology and situation, are also interesting. 
There is the common Hausa conclusion 'they remained'; the Limba 
return home, marriage, or formal reporting to some authority of the 
adventures undergone by the hero; or the frequent conclusion in Ila 
fool stories about how the events have now become a byword, as And 
to this day it is put on record. When a person looks for a thing he has 
got, they say: "You are like yon man who looked for the axe that was 
on his shoulder"' (Smith and Dale ii, 1920: 407). These may seem very 
trivial points, but in fact the study of them, in the context of a large 
collection of narratives from one area, can throw light both on the 
conventional elements involved — the phraseology and presentation 
thought suitable — and also on the attitude of the narrator himself to the 
story he is telling. 

On a slightly higher level, in studies of stories the literary conventions 
peculiar to a culture about the treatment of certain motifs and situations 
could often be more emphasized. Thus when one sees a relatively large 
selection of Kamba stories, it emerges that one of the stock climaxes is 
for the monster, about to die, to tell his conqueror to cut off his little 

72 Rattray 1913: 48 etc.; Tremearne 1913: 11; Johnson 1931: 340 etc.; Rattray 1930: 49, 53 etc. 


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370 Oral Literature in Africa 

finger; when this is done, all the people and the cattle devoured in the 
course of the story come to life again (Lindblom 1, 1928: ix). Similarly, 
in Zulu stories a stock way of killing an enemy is to give him a bag 
of snakes and scorpions to open (Krige 1936: 357), while the deus ex 
machina in Luba stories is usually a little dirty old woman who lives 
in the woods and who appears at the critical moment (Stappers 1962: 
17). Similarly we can find many other cases of stereotyped and yet, 
through that very fact, markedly allusive and meaningful treatments of 
particular episodes. There is the pregnant but outwardly simple Limba 
comment in a story 'he sharpened his sword', which at once hints at 
drama and danger to come, or their economical indication of the horror, 
finality, and shock of finding a dead body lying on the floor by a brief 
reference to the flies buzzing round the corpse. Both these motifs occur 
in several narrations; yet their full impact would not emerge were they 
not known to be common and yet allusive literary stereotypes. 

Even more important than the points mentioned so far is the need 
for further study of the delivery and dramatic performance of African 
stories. Since these narratives are oral ones, to ignore this aspect is to 
miss one of their most significant features. The vividness, subtlety, and 
drama with which stories are often delivered have often been noted in 
general terms by those who know a lot about the literature they present 
(as distinct from collectors who merely reproduce texts written for them 
by employees). One of the best single descriptions of African stories, for 
example, allied to a full appreciation of the social context, is that of Smith 
and Dale on Ila stories; when they come to pointing to the difficulties 
encountered by foreign readers in fully appreciating the literary value 
of the tales, they concentrate, significantly, on precisely this: 

We have to reconcile ourselves to the fact that for us, at least, it 
is impossible to do justice to these tales, and we doubt if the most 
skilful hand could reproduce in a translation the quaintness, the 
liveliness, and humour of the original .... They gradually lose 
flavour as they pass from the African's telling, first into writing 
and then into a foreign idiom. It would need a combination 
of phonograph and kinematograph to reproduce a tale as 
it is told. One listens to a clever story-teller, as was our old friend 
Mungalo, from whom we derived many of these tales. Speak of 
eloquence! Here was no lip mumbling, but every muscle of face and body 
spoke, a swift gesture often supplying the place of a whole sentence. 
He would have made a fortune as a raconteur upon the English stage. 


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13. Prose Narratives II. Content and Form 371 

The animals spoke each in its own tone: the deep rumbling voice of 
Momba, the ground hornbill, for example, contrasting vividly with 
the piping accents of Sulwe, the hare. It was all good to listen to — 
impossible to put on paper. Ask him now to repeat the story slowly 
so that you may write it. You will, with patience, get the gist of it, but 
the unnaturalness of the circumstance disconcerts him, your repeated 
request for the repetition of a phrase, the absence of the encouragement 
of his friends, and, above all, the hampering slowness of your pen, all 
combine to kill the spirit of story-telling. Hence we have to be content 
with far less than the tales as they are told. And the tales need effort 
of imagination to place readers in the stead of the original listeners 
(Smith and Dale ii, 1920: 334-6). 

Junod too, in describing the stories of the Thonga and of the Southern 
Bantu in general, stresses the same fact. The storytellers 'live' and act the 
tales rather than just telling them. No written version, however accurate 
in language or translation, could hope to reproduce the real atmosphere 
of the actual narration (Junod 1938: 58). A similar description is given by 
Doke of the art of the Lamba story-teller: 

To reproduce such stories with any measure of success, a gramophone 
record together with a cinematograph picture would be necessary. The story 
suffers from being put into cold print .... (Doke 1927: xiii) 73 

In my own study of Limba stories, the single characteristic that I found 
both most striking and most incommunicable in writing was just this — 
the way narrators could add subtlety and drama, pathos or humour, 
characterization or detached comment by the way they spoke as much 
as by the words themselves. 

In the majority of published collections of African tales not even a 
token reference is made to this fact. Detailed studies tend to be lacking. 
We are practically never told, for instance, about the accepted stylistic 
devices through which the performer makes his narrations more effective, 
or of individual differences between various narrators in respect of this 
skill. I have tried to treat these questions in a preliminary way for Limba 
story-tellers. Since this account is easily accessible (Finnegan 1967). 
I will here merely mention some of the general factors often involved in 

73 For some other good descriptions of the narrator's art see e.g. Roger 1828: 9 ff. (Wolof); 
Trilles 1932: 234-35, 240 (Pygmies); Tremearne 1913: 27-29. 


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372 Oral Literature in Africa 

Figure 21. Sites of many Limba fictional narratives 

a) entrance to a hill top Limba village, often the gentle and satisfying 

close to a story (more frequent than any attempt at introducing a moral) 

Kakarima 1961 (photo Ruth Finnegan); 

b) start of the bush and the bush paths where wild beasts and the devils of 

story roam free, 1961 (photo Ruth Finnegan). 

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13. Prose Narratives II. Content and Form 373 

First there is the way in which stories are dramatized, the narrator taking 
on the personalities of the various characters, acting out their dialogue, 
their facial expressions, even their gestures and reactions. This point is 
worth remembering when one is tempted to complain of the shadowy or 
crude characterization of many personalities in African stories— it is not 
necessary to formulate all this in words when a good narrator can present 
it much more economically and subtly in performance. The narrator does 
not enact the actions of the characters in the full sense: this is dramatized 
narrative and not actually drama. But even from his seat or when, as 
happens occasionally, he stands or moves within the circle of listeners, he 
can vividly suggest the acts and feelings of his characters by the use of 
dramatic dialogue or through expressions on his face or gestures of hand 
or body. 

Actual mimicry of a humorous and satirical kind seems most common 
in the case of animal characters. Some attempt at copying the cries and 
sounds of birds or animals in a stylized form is frequently mentioned as a 
characteristic of story-tellers. In Hausa stories, for instance, special words 
are used to imitate the sounds of dogs quarrelling and barking, the wildcat's 
call, and the crow of the rooster, with the words intoned to resemble the 
animal sounds. Speeches by animal characters are often sung, sometimes in 
falsetto, and always with a nasal twang (Tremearne 1913: 28). The Bushmen 
have a specialized form of this in the speech conventionally attributed to 
certain animals (and the moon) in stories; the Blue Crane, for instance, 
adds tt to the first syllable of almost every word, whereas the tortoise's 
lisping makes him change all the clicks and other initial consonants into 
labials (see especially Bleek 1936). Though not so complex as the Bushman 
example, similar stylized and imitative speech attributed to animals occurs 
widely in African narrations. 

The actual delivery and treatment of the words themselves is also 
relevant. Even when he does not choose to elaborate any extremes of 
dramatization, the narrator can and does create vivid effects by variations 
and exaggerations of speed, volume, and tone. He can use abrupt breaks, 
pregnant pauses, parentheses, rhetorical questions as he watches the 
audience's reactions and exploits his freedom to choose his words as well 
as his mode of delivery. 

A form of onomatopoeia is often used to add elegance and vividness 
to the narration. A style plentifully embroidered with ideophones is one 
of the striking characteristics of an effective storyteller. We can actually 


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374 Oral Literature in Africa 

hear the sound of a Limba boy leaping into a lake (tirin!), the noise of the 
Akan spider hitting the ceiling (kado!), the Luba onomatopoeic expression 
of a chase (kwata-kwata-kwata), or the tortoise swimming (seki seki seki) and 
pheasant fluttering its wings (fufufu) in Mabale tales. In this way the action 
is dramatized by a skilful teller. 

In all this the participation of the audience is essential. It is common 
for its members to be expected to make verbal contributions — spontaneous 
exclamations, actual questions, echoing of the speaker's words, emotional 
reaction to the development of yet another parallel and repetitious 
episode. Further, the audience contributes the choruses of the songs so 
often introduced into the narration, and without which, in many cases, the 
stories would be only a bare framework of words. 

Songs are characteristic of African tales all over the continent. They 
do not occur in every story, and in some cases there are local distinctions 
between 'prose' and 'choric' stories (e.g. Lamba (Doke 1934: 358)). But 
songs are infinitely more common than would appear from a cursory 
reading of the published collections. Since the songs are almost always 
so much more difficult to record than prose, they are usually omitted in 
published versions; even when they are included, the extent to which they 
are repeated and the proportion of time they occupy compared to spoken 
narration is often not made clear. Yet the singing can at times become the 
main element of the story— 'So much so that in many tales the narrative is 
to it no more than a frame is to a picture' (Torrend 1921: 3). Or, as Steere 
writes of the Swahili: 

Frequently the skeleton of the story seems to be contained in these snatches 
of singing, which the story-teller connects by an extemporized account of 
the intervening history. (Steere 1906: vii) 

Similar comments could be made on narrations from many areas in 
Africa, though the emphasis on singing varies not only with the type of 
tale involved but also, in some cases, with the individual teller. Among 
the Limba, for instance, I found that certain individuals were particularly 
fond of songs so that the singing, with much repetition of the choruses, 
took up more time than the words, and the plot and verbal element were 
little developed; other narrators on the other hand only introduced songs 
or recitative rarely, and then merely as an ornament. But in spite of these 
variations, it is safe to say that singing is an element that is worth looking 
for in tales of all kinds (except, probably, specialized historical narratives) 
all over Africa. 


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13. Prose Narratives II. Content and Form 375 

These songs fulfil various functions in the narrative. They often mark 
the structure of the story in a clear and attractive way. Thus, if the hero 
is presented as going through a series of tests or adventures, the parallel 
presentation of episode after episode is often cut into by the singing of a 
song by narrator and audience. Further, the occurrence of songs adds a 
musical aspect— an extra dimension of both enjoyment and skill. In some 
areas (particularly parts of West and West Equatorial Africa) this musical 
element is further enhanced by drum or instrumental accompaniment or 
prelude to the narration. 74 The songs also provide a formalized means for 
audience participation. The common pattern is for the words of the song, 
whether familiar or new, to be introduced by the narrator, who then acts as 
leader and soloist while the audience provide the chorus. 

Having discussed the significance of the actual performance of stories, 
we can raise the question of the individual contributions of the various 
narrators. Even if there are conventionally recognized ways of enhancing 
delivery, the narrator can exploit these and, in the last analysis, is responsible 
for all the aspects of performance already mentioned. It is evident then that 
one way of discovering the extent of the individual artistry involved in 
the narration of African stories is through the investigation of individual 
narrators' relevant skills and idiosyncrasies. 

Composition as well as performance is involved. The narrator of a story 
is likely to introduce his own favourite tricks of verbal style and presentation 
and to be influenced in his wording by the audience and occasion; thus he 
will produce linguistic variations on the basic theme different from those of 
his fellows or even from his own on a different occasion. In addition to this, 
there is the individual treatment of the various incidents, characters, and 
motifs; these do not emerge when only one version of the story appears in 
published form. Finally, there are the occasions when, in a sense, a 'new' 
story is created. Episodes, motifs, conventional characters, stylistic devices 
which are already part of the conventional literary background on which 
the individual artist can draw are bound together and presented in an 
original and individual way. 

This real originality, as it appears to the foreigner, is really only a 
difference in degree, for there is seldom any concept of a 'correct' version. 

74 e.g. Yoruba, Ewe, ex-French Equatorial Africa, Bulu (Ellis 1894: 243; 1890: 269; Nassau 
1914: 5; Krug 1949: 350). For further points on songs in stories (including some examples) 
and the common modes of antiphony see Ch. 9. See also Innes 1965; Belinga 1965: 55ff. 


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376 Oral Literature in Africa 

In all respects the narrator is free to choose his own treatment and most 
stories arise from the combination and recombination of motifs and 
episodes with which the individual is free to build. Stories are thus capable 
of infinite expansion, variation, and embroidery by narrators, as they are 
sewn together in one man's imagination. 75 The subject-matter too on which 
such artists draw is by no means fixed, and the common picture of a strict 
adherence to 'traditional' and unchanging themes is quite false. Not only are 
there multiple references to obviously recent material introductions — like 
guns, money, books, lorries, horse-racing, new buildings— but the whole 
plot of a story can centre round an episode like an imaginary race to the 
Secretariat building in a colonial capital to gain government recognition for 
an official position (Limba), a man going off to get work in Johannesburg 
and leaving his wife to get into trouble at home (Thonga), or a young hero 
winning the football pools (Nigeria). The occupations and preoccupations 
of both present and past, the background of local and changing literary 
conventions, and the current interests of both teller and listeners— all these 
make up the material on which the gifted narrator can draw and subject to 
the originality of his own inspiration. 

The question of the originality of the individual teller, whether in 
performance or composition, is one of the most neglected aspects of 
African oral narratives. That so obvious a point of interest should have been 
overlooked can be related to various constricting theoretical presuppositions 
about African oral art that have been dominant in the past: the assumption 
about the significance of the collective aspect, i.e. the contribution by 'the 
folk' or the masses rather than the individual; the desire to find and record 
the traditional tribal story, with no interest in variant or individual forms; 
and, finally, the prejudice in favour of the 'traditional', with its resultant 
picture of African oral art as static and unchanging through the years and 
the consequent explicit avoidance of 'new' or 'intrusive' stories. It is worth 
stressing here yet again that the neglect of this kind of point, one which 
seems so self-evidently a question to pursue in the case of any genre of 
literature, is not primarily due to any basis in the facts or to any proven lack 
of originality by African literary artists, but to this theoretical background 
of by now very dubious assumptions. Now that the dominance of many of 

75 For further comments on this aspect see e.g. Theal 1886: vii ff.; Finnegan 1967: 94ff.; 
Junod ii, 1913: 218ff.; Stappers 1962: 14ff. Cf. also Propp's interesting analysis of the 
'functions' or stahle and constant elements in (Russian) folktales— though his approach 
seems a little too formalistic for direct application to the African field (Propp 1958). 


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13. Prose Narratives II. Content and Form 377 

these theories is passing, at least in some circles, it is to be trusted that far 
more attention will be paid to this question of authorship and originality in 
African oral literature. 

Figure 22. 'Great Zimbabwe', the spectacular ruins in the south of the 

modern Zimbabwe, 1964 (photo David Murray). The ruins were believed 

by earlier European settlers and scholars to have been built by the 

Phoenicians, Carthaginians, or lost tribe of Israel (anyone other than 

Africans); or, by more comparatively-minded historians to parallel the 

Athenian acropolis; by more recent historians held to have been constructed 

during the African kingdoms of the eleventh to fourteenth centuries. In one 

version or another is now incorporated into established African mythology 

(for further comment see 

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378 Oral Literature in Africa 

This final section on the various aspects of oral prose narratives which, 
hitherto neglected, now demand further emphasis has had one underlying 
theme. That is, that the many questions that we would normally expect to 
pursue in the analysis of any literary genre should also be followed up in 
the case of these African stories. That this obvious approach has tended to be 
obscured is largely due to the limiting theoretical assumptions of the past that 
were discussed earlier. The stories are in fact far more flexible, adaptable, and 
subtle than would appear from the many traditionally-orientated published 
collections and accounts; if certain types and themes are dying out, others 
are arising, with new contexts and themes that provide a fruitful field of 
study. Once we can free our appreciation of past speculations, we can see 
these stories as literary forms in their own right. While some of the questions 
such as the significance of occasion, of delivery, or of audience participation, 
arise from their oral nature, others, such as the literary and social conventions 
of a particular literary form, its purpose and functions, and the varying 
interpretations of individual artists, are the traditional questions of literary 
analysis. These aspects concern both the literary scholar and the sociologist 
who want to understand the at once subtle and significant role of literature in 
a given society, and their study would seem to provide the greatest potential 
for further advance in our knowledge of African oral prose narratives. 

Figure 23. Karanke Dema, master story-teller, 

drummer, musician and smith Kakarima, 1961 

(photo Ruth Finnegan). 

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14. Proverbs 

The significance and concept of the proverb. Form and style. Content. Occasions 
and functions. Specific examples: Jabo; Zulu; Azande. Conclusion. 


Proverbs seem to occur almost everywhere in Africa, in apparent contrast 
with other areas of the world such as aboriginal America and Polynesia. 
Relatively easy to record, they have been exceedingly popular with 
collectors. Particularly well represented are proverbs from the Bantu area 
(especially the Southern Bantu); the Congo and West Africa have also 
provided many extensive collections. It is notable, however, that there are 
apparently few or no proverbs among the Bushmen of southern Africa 
and the Nilotic peoples (Doke 1933: 6; Evans-Pritchard 1963fr: 109), and 
few seem to have been recorded in Nilo-Hamitic languages. In other areas 
proverbs seem universal and in some African languages occur in rich 
profusion. 4,000 have been published in Rundi, for instance, about 3,000 
in Nkundo, and roughly 2,000 in Luba and Hausa. In addition Bascom 
lists about thirty other African peoples for whom 500 or more proverbs 
have been recorded (Bascom 1964: 16-17; Doke 1947: 115-7; Whitting 
1940). Also many editors say that they doubt whether their collections are 

The literary relevance of these short sayings is clear. Proverbs are a rich 
source of imagery and succinct expression on which more elaborate forms 
can draw. As Nketia puts it in his comment on Ghanaian proverbs 

The value of the proverb to us in modern Ghana does not lie only in what 
it reveals of the thoughts of the past. For the poet today or indeed for the 
speaker who is some sort of an artist in the use of words, the proverb is a 
model of compressed or forceful language. In addition to drawing on it for 


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380 Oral Literature in Africa 

its words of wisdom, therefore, he takes interest in its verbal techniques — its 
selection of words, its use of comparison as a method of statement, and 
so on. Familiarity with its techniques enables him to create, as it were, his 
own proverbs. This enables him to avoid hackneyed expressions and give a 
certain amount of freshness to his speech. 

This . . . approach to proverbs which is evident in the speech of people 
who are regarded as accomplished speakers or poets of a sort makes the 
proverbs not only a body of short statements built up over the years and 
which reflect the thought and insight of Ghanaians into problems of life, but 
also a technique of verbal expression, which is greatly appreciated by the 
Ghanaian. It is no wonder therefore that the use of proverbs has continued 
to be a living tradition in Ghana (Nketia 1958: 21). 

In many African cultures a feeling for language, for imagery, and for the 
expression of abstract ideas through compressed and allusive phraseology 
comes out particularly clearly in proverbs. The figurative quality of 
proverbs is especially striking; one of their most noticeable characteristics 
is their allusive wording, usually in metaphorical form. This also emerges 
in many of the native words translated as 'proverb' and in the general 
stress often laid on the significance of speaking in symbolic terms. Indeed, 
this type of figurative expression is sometimes taken so far as to be almost 
a whole mode of speech in its own right. The Fulani term mallol for instance, 
means not only a proverb but also allusion in general, and is especially 
used when there is some deep hidden meaning in a proverb different from 
the obvious one' (Gaden 1931: vi). Similarly with the Kamba term ndimo. 
This does not exactly correspond to our term 'proverb' but is its nearest 
equivalent, and really means a 'dark saying' or 'metaphorical wording', a 
sort of secret and allusive language (Lindblom iii, 1934: 28). 

The literary significance of proverbs in Africa is also brought out 
by their close connection with other forms of oral literature. This is 
sometimes apparent in the local terminology, for proverbs are not always 
distinguished by a special term from other categories of verbal art. The 
Nyanja mwambi, for instance, refers to story, riddle, or proverb, the 
Ganda olugero means, among other things, a saying, a story, a proverb, 
and a parable (Doke 1947: 102) and the Mongo bokolo is used of all poetic 
expression including fable, proverb, poetry and allegory (Hulstaert 1958: 
6). This overlap in terms is fairly common in Bantu languages and also 
sometimes occurs in West Africa too: the Limba mboro refers to story, 
riddle, and parable as well as to sayings which we might term proverbs, 
while the Fulani tindol can mean not only a popular moral story but also 
a proverb or maxim (Gaden 1931: vi). 


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14. Proverbs 381 

In some languages (such as Yoruba or Zulu) a distinction does exist in 
terminology between proverbs and other types of literary expression. 1 But 
even here there is often a practical connection between proverbs and other 
forms of oral literature. Chatelain pointed out that Kimbundu proverbs 
are closely related to anecdotes, so much so that anecdotes are sometimes 
just illustrations of a proverb, while a proverb is frequently an anecdote in 
a nutshell (Chatelain 1894: 21). Again, the Nyanja proverb 'Pity killed the 
francolin' is a direct allusion to the story in which the francolin came to 
the help of a python and was in return eaten by it (Gray 1944: 102). Similar 
connections between story and proverb are mentioned for the Azande, 
Zulu, Ashanti, and many others, and a moralizing story may end with, 
or imply, a proverb to drive home its point. As well, proverbs frequently 
appear in songs and poems. The drum proverbs of Ghana or Dahomey 
are particularly striking examples here. Among other instances we could 
mention the Nguni saying 'The earth does not get fat' (i.e. however many 
dead it receives the earth is never satiated) which also appears as the 
central theme and chorus in an impressive Ngoni lament (in Ch. 7 above) 
and the Swahili poem about silence based on the proverb 'Much silence has 
a mighty noise' ('Still waters run deep') but elaborated and drawn out in 
the verses arising from it (Taylor 1891: 32-3). Written forms too sometimes 
make use of traditional proverbs, as in Muyaka's Swahili poems, and these 
in turn may give further currency to new or old proverbs (Doke 1947: 
105). Proverbs are also sometimes connected with riddles (e.g. the Anang 
'proverb-riddles' discussed below, p. 431) or, as among the Liberian Jabo, 
with praise names (Herzog 1936: 12). They also frequently occur in general 
conversation and in oratory to embellish, conceal, or hint. Proverbs, in 
short, are closely interwoven with other aspects of linguistic and literary 

As well as these obvious and common ways in which proverbs overlap 
with other kinds of verbal art, they also appear in certain specialized forms. 
Their use in the form of 'proverb names' is one. Among the Ovimbundu, to 
give one example, the woman's name Simbovala is a shortened form of the 
proverb 'While you mark out a field, Death marks you out in life' — in life 
you are in the midst of death' (Ennis 1945: 3; on names in general see Ch. 16). 
Another connection is with bird lore, a form particularly popular among 
the Southern Bantu. The cries attributed to certain birds can be expressed 

1 There are also several cases where there are both a general term, covering both proverbs and 
other types of verbal art, and, in addition, a more precise term referring to proverbs only. 


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382 Oral Literature in Africa 

as a proverb or a song. The hammerkop, for instance, can be referred to 
as a symbol of vanity either in a brief proverb or in the full song in which 
he is represented as praising himself at length (Meeussen 1959: 73); the 
songs here are thus inextricably linked with the proverbs. Proverbs are 
also sometimes connected with other artistic media: they can be drummed 
(a characteristic form in some West African societies), sung, as with Lega 
judicial proverbs, or can appear on the flags of military companies, as 
among the Fante (Christensen 1958: 240). Most striking of all is the way 
the Ashanti associate a certain proverb with one or other of their many 
'gold- weights' — small brass figures and images originally used to weigh 
gold dust and worked with great skill and humour. Thus a snake catching 
a bird represents the proverb 'The snake lies upon the ground, but God has 
given him the hornbill' (that flies in the sky). Another weight depicts two 
crocodiles with only a single stomach between them, representing 'Bellies 
mixed up, crocodiles mixed up, we have between us only one belly, but if 
we get anything to eat it passes down our respective gullets' — a famous 
proverb often cited when one individual in a family tries to seize for himself 
rather than sharing (Rattray 1923: 312-3; also Paulme 1941; Plass 1967). 

Certain of the direct associations between proverbs and other artistic 
forms such as metalwork or drumming may be peculiar to certain 
African societies, but the general association of proverbs and other forms 
of literature is not after all very surprising. These close connections are 
perhaps particularly characteristic of an oral literature without a clear-cut 
distinction between written and unwritten forms, but the sort of way in 
which proverbial expression and other types of literary art (including the 
art of conversation) mutually enrich and act upon each other is something 
that is presumably a quality of most cultures. In this sense, then, proverbs 
in Africa are not so very different from those in any literate culture, in 
both of which their main impact seems, in fact, to be in an oral rather 
than a written form. In neither case should they be regarded as isolated 
sayings to be collected in hundreds or thousands on their own, but rather 
as just one aspect of artistic expression within a whole social and literary 

The close connection of proverbs with other literary forms raises a 
difficulty. How, particularly in an oral culture, can we distinguish proverbs 
from other forms of oral art? or indeed, from ordinary cliches and idioms, 
and from such related but different forms as maxims and apophthegms? 

Most of the published collections ignore this point of definition and by 
merely entitling their works 'Proverbs' often give the misleading impression 


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14. Proverbs 383 

that these sayings are clearly differentiated from other expressions or that 
they are in all ways equivalent to our idea of proverbs. Some of the best 
collections, such as those of Hulstaert, Nyembezi, Doke, or Chatelain, 
specifically point out this difficulty but most have little or no discussion 
of this point. 

The exact definition of 'proverb' is no easy matter. There is, however, 
some general agreement as to what constitutes a proverb. It is a saying 
in more or less fixed form marked by 'shortness, sense, and salt' and 
distinguished by the popular acceptance of the truth tersely expressed in 
it. Even so general a picture as this contains some useful pointers for the 
analysis of African proverbs. 

First, their form. They are picked out first and most obviously as being 
short; and secondly by the fact that even where the wording itself is not 
absolutely fixed, at least the main structural pattern is accepted in the 
society concerned as an appropriate one for this purpose. This question 
of form has been well noted by collectors and is pursued further in the 
following section. It will emerge that, in addition to terseness and relative 
fixity, most sayings classed as proverbs are also marked by some kind of 
poetic quality in style or sense, and are in this way set apart in form from 
more straightforward maxims. 

The question of 'popular acceptance' is, however, a more difficult one. If 
one of the marks of a true proverb is its general acceptance as the popular 
expression of some truth, we are seldom given the data to decide how far this 
is indeed a characteristic of the sayings included in collections of 'proverbs'. 
In many cases presumably the sayings included are proverbs in this full 
sense. But we have in fact no way of telling whether some of the 'proverbs' 
included are not just the sententious utterances of a single individual on a 
single occasion, which happened to appeal to the investigator. 

The sort of terminology involved can sometimes provide a clue to 
the local attitude to 'proverbs'. As we have seen, there is sometimes a 
specialized term, sometimes not. This is not always made clear by collectors. 
Even more serious is the frequent failure to consider when, how, and by or 
among whom common proverbs are used. 2 Even where something about 
the general context is given we are practically never told in detail how a 
given single proverb was actually used (for some exceptions see below). 
Yet, as will emerge, this may in fact determine its significance, the way in 
which it is appreciated locally, even its meaning. This aspect is often crucial, 

2 A point well made in Arewa and Dundes 1964; see also Evans-Pritchard 1963a. 


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384 Oral Literature in Africa 

if whether or not some attractive saying is really a 'proverb' depends on the 
local evaluation of it. This question is made more difficult because proverbs 
often have no specialized occasions for their use. Unlike such forms as 
riddles and stories they are not normally set apart as suitable for relaxation 
after, say the end of the day's work, but are closely involved with speech 
and action on every sort of occasion (including general conversation). 
Therefore to differentiate those sayings which are merely idiomatic from 
those that the people concerned consider to have that special flavour which 
makes it correct to call them proverbs, we need more precise information 
about context and attitude than we are usually given. 

This said, we can in a general way accept most of the published sayings 
as falling, more or less, within the general category of proverb. But it is 
worth making these points about the difficulties inherent in differentiating 
proverbs if it helps to deter yet more facile collections and to encourage 
more consideration of their context. In the case of proverbs above all, an 
understanding of this is essential. 


In discussing the style and structure of African proverbs one of the first 
things one notices is the poetic form in which many are expressed. This, 
allied to their figurative mode of expression, serves to some degree to set 
them apart from everyday speech. This point often does not emerge in 
collections of translated examples. A more detailed discussion of form in 
African proverbs is therefore needed here to show these two characteristics 
more clearly. 

The general truth touched on in a proverb can be conveyed in several 
ways: more or less literally, through a simile, or (most commonly) through 
a metaphor. 

The relatively literal forms of proverbs often contain some allusion 
or a picturesque form of speech, and among certain peoples at least are 
marked by some poetic quality such as rhythm. Examples of this type are 
fairly common. 'The dying of the heart is a thing unshared', 'If the chief 
speaks, the people make silent their ears', and the humorous description 
of a drunkard, 'He devoured the Kaffir-beer and it devoured him', are 
instances from South Africa (McLaren 1917: 343; 338; 341). Comments on 
what is considered to be the real nature of people or things often occur in 
this form, as in the Thonga 'The White man has no kin. His kin is money', 
the Xhosa description of Europeans as 'The people who rescue and kill' 


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14. Proverbs 385 

(i.e. they protect with one hand, destroy with the other) (Junod 1938: 49; 
Theal 1886: 199), or the witty Akan comment that 'An ancient name cannot be 
cooked and eaten; after all, money is the thing' (Rattray 1916: 118). General 
advice is also often tendered in this sort of form, as in the Thonga 'Dis du 
mal du chef quand tu quittes son pays' or the humorous Ila injunction to 
hospitality in the form of 'The rump of a visitor is made to sit upon' (Junod: 
1931, no. 56; Smith and Dale ii, 1920: 312). It is true that several of these (and 
similar) proverbs may also conceal deeper meanings as well as picturesque 
language, but in explicit form, in contrast to the clearly figurative, they 
present the thought in a simple and straightforward way 3 

More often the proverbs are figurative in one way or another. Direct 
similes occur fairly often. The Hausa, for example, say that A chief is 
like a dust-heap where everyone comes with his rubbish (complaint) and 
deposits it' (Tremearne 1913: 62). Among the Southern Bantu the likening of 
something to dew melting away in the sun appears in many forms: the Zulu 
suggest that something is only a passing phase by asserting that 'This thing 
is like the dew which showers down', and the comparison often appears 
in a more direct and concise form, as with the Thonga 'Wealth is dew' or 
Ndebele 'Kingship is dew' (Stuart and Malcolm 1949: 70; Junod 1938: 49; 
Leaver and Nyembezi 1946: 137). Wealth is another stock comparison, as in 
the Swah